Sunday, January 01, 2006

Cool Hand Luke

Let the record show that I am not, at this point, a Christian music enthusiast. At one point I was. I played guitar in two bands, and once, when I cited Jacob’s Trouble as an influence, I was dubbed “indie-er than indie.” At most, I know all my Christian rock trivia until 1995.

Now, anyway, I refuse to acknowledge a distinction between things in my life that may be labeled “secular” and those that are Christian. My attempts at faith are an all-the-time thing, not something relegated to the music I listen to or the books that I read. God, I figure, will be glorified in my attempts at being an authentic individual, and if I find more respite in the human condition as described by Dostoevsky or Joey Ramone than Frank Peretti or Scott Wenzel, why should the Father be bothered?

God might not be -- who knows? But after chatting with Cool Hand Like, I’m thinking maybe I struck out on this path with a conspicuous shortage of prayer.

*

The hard truth, as I see it, is that Wake Up, O Sleeper, the full-length about to drop from Cool Hand Luke and their new label, Floodgate Records, suffers from over-production and lack of direction. The sometimes brilliant and edgy songwriting is camouflaged by slick harmonies and tweaking that I predict will be lost in the passion of their live show. If I were Steve Hindalog, their producer, you can bet I would have tried to capture more of that stage-show emotion on the final product. But that’s me, and I’ve already discredited myself. If I had produced the record you’d have something that sounds suspiciously like Rites of Spring, not Mark Nicks’s pristine vocals.

A glaring example of the albums lack of direction is the song “Two Pianos,” nearly a navel-gazing “Bohemian Rhapsody” that opens with a mysterious clanking and shudders into what could be an X-Files them, then bursts into an orchestral plod, then some circus melody, them we get to the rock, then these elements are intertwined with a dirge’s violin.

All in a day’s work, I guess, and the end product is pretty cool, except the lyrics are more presumptuous than their previous, reflective songs: “You’ve taken down the world to find yourself/You find yourself so empty.” I’d prefer to hear that “Beelzebub has a devil for a son.”

It’s the same beef I’ve had since I walked out on Christian rock; there’s too much. Too much vocals in the mix, too much riding the currents of the mainstream, too much bad lyrics. Not that there aren’t exceptions -- I’ll always get into the underdog, underground bands; they’re cutting edge. Sleeper, unfortunately, never gets out of bed.

The trouble with me is that I let the production and the repeated “hallelujahs” (the song “So Shall It Be” is nearly doubled in length while the band mounts praise upon praise) signify artistic fraudulence and rock antipathy. And then I let that get under my skin, you know, as I end up lambasting the Christian subbacultcha and its sub populace. And that ain’t cool. That ain’t having an open mind.

*

Largely, it was the movie Cool Hand Luke that opened me to the legitimacy of “The World’s” religious input. The film is rich in Christological undertones, which confirmed to me that something doesn’t need to be imprinted with the Christian label to be spiritually relevant. In the classic movie, Lucas Jackson (portrayed brilliantly by Paul Newman) is a pokerfaced antihero sent to work on a chain gang for decapitating parking meters. “Small town, not much to do in the evenings,” he explains. He earns the respect of his fellow convicts with simple honesty and intransigence; he shall not be moved, and this is seen when his behavior gets him into a drag-out brawl he can’t win; neither will he stay down. He displays the same obstinacy in the face of the sadistic warden, who admonishes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” before he sets Lucas to digging his own grave, both literally and figuratively.

Ironically, it’s the band Cool Hand Luke that opens me to the legitimacy of the Church’s religious input. Chatting on the phone with the band members, I was left with the impression that the level of commitment they have to their faith can be likened to Hemingway storming into his publisher’s office with a shotgun aimed, insisting that “not one word” of his manuscript can be changed. My verdict of “artistic fraudulence and rock antipathy” was annulled. Put simply, Cool Hand Luke has no shortage of artistic integrity. And that matters.

Their story is old news for HM readers, who voted them Best Independent Band in 2001. Jason Hammil and Brandon Morgan were already friends before attending Middle Tennessee State University, where they formed their punk band in 1998. Then, when a mutual friend introduced them to Mark Nicks, Cool Hand Luke -- as we know the sophisticated, not-so-punk trio was complete. They named their act the way so many bands have done: by coincidence. Hanging out, someone strung the words together and they clicked with Jason and Brandon, who thought they’d cop it.

At that time they had not seen the classic film, but they’ve seen it since and Jason tells me he thinks that “it’s a good movie, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with our name.” I said it’s pretty bold, naming your band after the greatest film of all time, and he laughed and said, “Now I kind of wish we hadn’t chosen it. But so far we don’t have any reason to change it.” I told him I wouldn’t plague them by belaboring it in my article, but look: I have.

*

I called Mark Nicks at the number he gave me and his mom answered. She told me in her sweet Tennessee accent that he wasn’t expected for a couple hourse, and I got the feeling that if I had been there in person she would have asked me to stay for dinner. Since I wasn’t, she said he would call me at about 6:30.

At exactly 6:30 my phone rang -- it was Mark. That’s what I call professionalism. He has a busy schedule for the next couple weeks, he told me, but I could catch them on their cell phones as they drove into Florida. “Perfect,” I said. “Is there anything that you would like to focus on in our interview?”

“Well, people usually ask me the same kind of questions and that gets frustrating for me, like I don’t have too much to say.”

“We could talk about cooking or something,” I said.

He said he wouldn’t have too much to say there, either. The he astonished me with my first Cool Hand Luke bombshell: “I’m pretty evangelical,” he said, “so everything I say will probably go back to that.”

It’s not for his evangelicalism that I’m startled. It’s clear from their lyrics that Cool Hand Luke’s foremost mission is the Mission. After all, Mark is quoted in the Floodgate press release, saying, “I believe the Word of God is living, and if the Word of God is in our songs then our songs would be living too.” So I was expecting our conversation to head in that direction. I was surprised, however, by how quickly Mark got to that point, and how little choice he seemed to have in the matter. He simply must talk about his faith. Cooking will have to take a back seat.

I had this same revelation when I spoke to Brandon as he drove to the second sow of their Southeast tour. I picture him with the phone hammed between his shoulder and ear as he plows down the highway in the tour van (which “rides quiet” he said and I affirm). We spoke while Mark and Jason stole forty winks. Minimizing chitchat, I started right in on him.

Sleeper opens with a definite emo tinge and quickly changes to a churchy tone, which makes me wonder about your roots. What most influences the songwriting?” I asked.

He cut to the chase as quickly as Mark. “As cheesy and generic as it sounds, it’s just our relationship with Christ. That’s what Makes us want to write music. The stuff that we listen to is so diverse that it’s totally ambiguous in our record. I’m sure that they affect the songs on some level, but when it comes down to it we are mostly inspired by our relationship with the Lord.”

See, when I was in a band I listened to a lot of Carman and ended up writing soft pop songs. No matter how much I prayed, I kept writing these story ballads. Then, when I stopped listening to Carman and got into Guided By Voices my sound changed. But Cool Hand Luke’s primary influence is their Christianity. That’s even how they write their songs:

“Piecing songs together we just get together and pray a lot. If something doesn’t work, we just forget it and move on. For us it’s a tedious process. We just want to write music that’s uplifting and spiritual. We want to put 110% into that.”

Okay, color me impressed. I am, in fact, stymied. My typical reaction would be to lash out against what I perceived as absurdity. They write their songs through prayer? Please, sir, ain’t that the most rehearsed, Sunday School response? “Boys and girls, how does Cool Hand Luke write songs?” “Prayer?” “That’s right, Billy.”

And God said, “Let there be an F major.”

But I go on with my questions instead. Soon I am eager for his responses, delighted with how well they follow my questions. And I ignore that he’s saying things like, “We know that God’s hand is on this. So if we sell 1,000 records, then 1,000 people will be touched by God. And if we sell 50,000, then that’s 50,000 people.”

I had to follow that up. “Will your record save lives?”

“I don’t think anything that we put into the record will change anyone’s lives as far as our human abilities. But the way everything has fallen into place with the record, with Floodgate and getting to record with Steve Hindalog, there’s just so much evidence that God’s hand is upon this in big ways. We believe that we’re going to spur people on to a deeper relationship with God. This whole period of transition has been a big step in our faith, just allowing God to do it.”

Then I asked the clincher, “What does it mean to be in the world but not of it? How do you separate yourself from pop culture?”

He thought for a minute, and then replied with a clincher of his own. “I’m not going to say it’s cool and easy to go into a bar and preach the gospel, but it’s definitely a good thing. That part of scripture has become more real in our faith. There are PC Christian things that we can say to get by and not really offend anyone, but the Gospel is going to offend people. That’s just what we’ve been called to do. It’s really the joy that we have. When you are serving the Lord you get pulled from your comfort zone, and you start to understand the aspects of ‘of the world,’ and ‘in the world.’ I’m not going to say we have it hard. Our art and our faith are inseparable. This is our lives.”

Cool Hand Luke, with their nice-guy simplicity and absolute devotion, convicted me. While I rebelled against the Christian music industry for creating a distinction between faith and art (you can choose either Christian or secular music; there’s a difference), Cool Hand Luke was proving that you can’t separate the two. They have faith/art -- it’s one thing -- and it’s their lives. It’s evident even in the way they write their songs.

*

Let the record show that there is a place for Christian music, and it’s in bars and radio stations. And let the record show that Christian music need utter no apologies; Cool Hand Luke has shown a skeptic that their commitment to the Gospel is true hardcore, and even analogous to the story of indie rock’s difficult birth; SST’s dedication to the concept made the scene viable. But while SST ended in death and dissolution, Cool Hand Luke can only go up, bringing some of us with them.

And hey, they do sort of rock.

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