Holy (Rock &) Rollers
Mark Salomon spends most of his days and evenings mixing espressos, foaming lattes, waiting tables, taking people's orders and smiling cordially during the hours he works his two jobs—one at a coffeehouse in Huntington Beach, the other at a Sunset Beach restaurant. Humble, service-oriented gigs, to be sure. Makes you wonder why Salomon does them, since the rock band he sings in just sold 7,000 copies of its new CD in its first two weeks of release.
Salomon's band is Stavesacre, one of the biggest OC bands you've likely never heard of. That's because, like local ska rockers the Supertones, they move mostly in the circles of modern Christian music, a parallel universe where followings are built through word-of-mouth and constant touring (Stavesacre have played across the U.S. 10 times in the past three years), rather than the more secular routes of commercial alterna-rock radio and MTV.
Salomon is aching to change that. Stavesacre's big, booming, slightly hardcore anthems would be perfect KROQ hits, and last month's Speakeasy, the band's third disc, is full of them. But Salomon admits that because they've gone down the "Christian rock" path, mainstream success isn't going to come easy.
"It's our own fault," says Salomon over afternoon coffee, the demon liquid he can't seem to resist. "We're doing everything we can to fix that. When we first started playing, the Christian tours were there, so we took them, not realizing what we were getting into. But now we're trying to find a way to balance things."
It's only natural that a burgeoning band would want to get its music heard by as many people as possible, regardless of what god, if any, the audience worships. To win over new fans, Salomon says Stavesacre will cut back on the Christian-festival circuit in 2000 in favor of playing more traditional bars and clubs.
He's looking forward to the break, one the band is making partially out of frustration with the Christian music industry and the larger Christian community, which he says is often too separatist, commercial and judgmental at the expense of espousing true faith. Ask him for details, and he'll give you an earful.
"The Christian community is clueless to things that are going on [with their separatism]," he says. "To me, it seems like this default, an easy way out—'We get to hang around other Christians, we work at Christian-owned businesses, we only take our children to Christian schools and Christian movies, and we only let them listen to Christian music.' They're more concerned with whether Stavesacre says 'Jesus' on our records, or whether people cussed in the movie their kids saw, or if [their kids are] listening to Marilyn Manson. I understand their concern; I don't despise them for it. But at the same time, there's so much more that's important. I mean, here I am working in a coffeehouse, serving coffee to some dude whose brother just got locked up for life or some girl whose husband just overdosed. It sounds so overly dramatic, but that's a regular part of my life. These are real people with real needs."
To more conservative Christians—the kind whom most nonbelievers mistakenly tend to stereotype as standard Christians—Stavesacre just aren't Christian enough, Salomon points out. "I love the Lord. I'm in a rock & roll band. We sweat, we play in bars, we like to go out and have a good time—and we're Christians. Some have a hard time with that. Yes, some people in Stavesacre smoke; some of us drink alcohol. But we believe in the fruits of the Holy Spirit—one of those fruits being self-control. But right there, what I just said, 90 percent of the Christian community will read that and go, 'Oh, he wants to get drunk!' And there are people who say that since we don't preach at our shows, we're ashamed of the Gospel. Whatever. I don't care anymore. You can't win. We've experienced nothing but that in the Christian industry, and that's why we're getting away. Half the record is about getting away from that stuff."
Three of Speakeasy's more biting songs give you a clearer idea of where Salomon, the band's chief songwriter, is coming from. "You Know How It Is" is a vitriolic rant against people who make their living off Jesus imagery—modern-day moneychangers, if you wil l—but don't truly walk the walk. "Gold and Silver" finds Salomon wanting to console friends in despair but finding it hard to come up with the right words without sounding stupid—something Salomon attributes to a kind of bumper-sticker Christianity.
"I had several friends whose wives just left them," Salomon says, "and the need came up to comfort them, to tell them I'd pray for them. But by virtue of these slogans, things like "Prayer Is God's Direct Hot Line," which the Christian industry pumps out, it almost cheapens what it means to tell someone that I'll pray for them. You just have to rise above the trivial. So that's about the frustration I feel—where you can't comfort somebody because your words are so clichd."
In "Sundown Motel," the most pointed Speakeasy tune, Salomon takes aim at his band's detractors: "They'll say we love the darkness, but I'll say we hate their half-light" and "I don't believe this is what God ever intended/So I wanted you to know."
"It's not what God intended," he emphasizes. "Christian T-shirts and sloganeering are not what he meant. We did a tour last year that was almost all Christian fests and shows, and we'll still have to play some of those shows, but never a tour like that again. Our drummer, Sam [West], calls it Jesus Incorporated: they've got wall-to-wall Jesus T-shirts with corporate logos like Starbucks, but instead of STARBUCKS, it says SALVATION, and instead of a picture of that weird little goddess chick, there's Jesus in a crown of thorns. I'm not saying that's a particularly bad thing, but the point is that it's passed off as sharing the love of Jesus. There are people in the Christian industry who are loving, gentle people, but there are some who just don't get it. It's a business to them."
Salomon was born and raised in Fresno, where, as a teen, he joined a Christian punk band called the Crucified —and gradually backslid on the beliefs he was raised on. "I chased girls, lost my virginity to a married woman, experimented with cocaine and weed," he says. "I wasn't really rebelling—I was just bored and lazy. Plus, I was manipulative and pretty much used everyone within an arm's length."
Fresno was a dead-end town—"No-town," he's branded it—so he left for LA shortly after turning 18 and took a job washing windows in the San Fernando Valley. "There was just nothing in Fresno," he says. "The punk scene didn't have straight-edge or any positive youth; it was all shut-up-and-drink aggro. There was nothing to do except destroy your life."
But life in LA wasn't much better, just a lot of time hanging out with 55-year-old window washers who liked to smoke pot while driving around pointing out all the hookers they'd had. Salomon could see that this was his future—and it wasn't pretty. By 1993, he had straightened out and moved to Huntington Beach, into a house with several other Christian men. The Crucified had broken up that year, which was fine by Salomon.
"Everything was this endless testosterone fury, stuff that was quickly going the way of Pantera," he says with a mock snore.
Hungry for something more, he and Crucified guitarist Jeff Bellew looked to build a band that would be a bit more challenging, something with more textures, colors and layers than your standard punk-by-rote. So they started Stavesacre (named after a Eurasian flower, the seeds of which Webster defines as "highly emetic and cathartic"), promptly got signed to friend Brandon Ebel's Seattle-based Tooth & Nail label, and released their debut, Friction, in 1995.
"We didn't have anyone to model ourselves on," Salomon says. "In the Crucified, you'd get up onstage, jump around a bunch of times, and everybody would be happy. But in Stavesacre, you can't jump around in the middle of a beautiful part where you're singing a melody that's from the deepest part of your soul."
Stavesacre live is an attention-grabber, full of booming sounds, moody melodies, wide-open choruses and the occasional fist-pumping anthem, fronted by Salomon's bottomless set of pipes, which would have no trouble reaching up into the highest tiers of the average sports arena. But venues like those remain a dream for now. Until they can get to where they want to be, Salomon will keep slaving away at his day jobs. He and the rest of Stavesacre (West, bassist Dirk Lemmeness, and guitarist Ryan Dennee, who replaced Bellew) can't yet devote themselves to the band full-time, regardless of breakout sales figures. "The money won't be there until we start getting played on the radio," Salomon says.
That's what they're going for. But for now, Salomon must still contend with busted cappuccino machines and making sure he gets his orders right—roles that at least keep him grounded. "It's very difficult to have a rock & roll attitude when you're serving coffee and waiting on customers who are intoxicated," he says. "I'm a working man. It's kind of weird sometimes—at the restaurant, I'll get people who were at our shows the night before screaming their heads off, and I'll be spilling coffee on them. Maybe I work jobs that aren't particularly prestigious, but I just keep plugging away, doing what I do. I lovewhat I do."
Stavesacre play with Wonderlove and Five Crown at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams St., Anaheim, (714) 533-1286. Sun., 9 p.m. $5. 21+; and with the Deal and Oneside at Sid's Tattoo Parlor, 13912 Ponderosa, Santa Ana, (714) 664-8804. Sat., Dec. 18, 7 p.m. $5. All ages.
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