[ interview by kim flanders ]
Earlier this year, our Kim Flanders sat down with Karl Messner, the lead guitarist and producer for that Christian parody band, Apologetix. Karl was an enthusiastic talker and had a lot to say about the band, the music, the business, and the ministry. What follows is a compilation of Karl's best comments from the interview.
On the challenges of being a parody band.
[It's] much more difficult than recording original music because with original music, whatever you do is right! When we work in the studio, we have, side-by-side, the original songs that we're parodying. I can hit one button to listen to them or us, and I can hear sudden differences: "Ah! That snare drum is too loud. Ah! That singer doesn't sound anything like the original guy." It is just a lot harder. I wish we'd get in a band that was just doing original music; it would be such a break!
On becoming nationally recognized while remaining independent.
We did not set out to be an independent band; the industry made us into an independent band by not being interested in what we were doing. We gave tapes to different labels and so on. They were like, "Awww, cute kid. You get out of here, kid, you bother me." We just did what we needed to do to get the word out, and [used] our heads. The parable of the talents, in the Bible, says the guy that took that talent and buried in the ground, his master said to him, "Hey! Why didn't you at least put it in the bank and earn some interest?" In other words: "Why didn't you just use your head? Try something, don't just sit back and wait for the right answer to plop in your lap all of the time." The Bible says he takes care of the birds of the air, but he doesn't drop the seed in the nest.
So, we put the pedal to the metal, and we did everything we needed to do. We built a distribution system, we built a marketing system to get the word out, and we built different things. The next thing you know, you turn around, and it looks like we've built our own label, an independent label. Now, it's a whole different world. Now that we've achieved some visibility, we have a #1 hip-hop single. Currently we have a Top 30 rock single on R&R with "Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous."
Now ... different labels have approached us. And [they've] said, "Hey, we'd like to work together now." It's not like we [said], [snobbishly] "No, you can't have us now." We said, "Sure. We'd love to. Let's sit down and see what makes sense." When I showed them everything we'd put together, they were taken aback. They said, "Wow. You're doing more for you than we would have done for you. You're getting better results than we would have thought we would have gotten. And you don't have the added expense of having to feed the label (because they take like 90% of the money). If someone took 90% of what little we can amass, we couldn't even keep the ministry alive.
People have asked me, "Did you get into music for the money and the fame and the glory?" And I say, "Well, I hope not, because if that's it, then I'm an utter failure." 'Cause there ain't no money in Christian music, and there's even less in what we're up to. I wear beat-up old shoes and drive a twelve-year-old stick.
Now, I would be perfectly willing to go to a label, and make a tiny percentage of the money (because we're not in it for the money at all, we couldn't care less, we'd do it for free if someone would feed us, we have nothing to do with money, we couldn't care less). I would be perfectly willing to see ten times as many CD's go out if we made ten percent less money, just so more people can get to hear the band.
On working with notable musicians.
We got to work with some very famous musicians, including Elvis's keyboardist. ... His name is Steve Carroll and before he played with Elvis, he recorded an album with Bob Dylan. And before he played with Bob Dylan, he was a member of the Guess Who, "American Woman" and all that. And before he was a member of the Guess Who, for years he was a member of Three Dog Night when they did "Joy to the World." So when we did "Joy to the World," he came in and played it. He played it obviously right off the top of his head. He did not even have to think about it. He loved what we are doing so much (he is now a Pastor in Georgia) that he has offered to come on tour with us, fly anywhere we want him to fly, and it has just been a great opportunity to work with Steve Carroll. He is a great guy.
We have also had the opportunity to play with Everlife, a huge Nashville act, popular today. Maybe we will hear more about them in the next couple of months because they are really on the upswing. But they are turning Nashville on their ears. And someday people are going to say, "Wow, you have Everlife on your CD?" "Well, we caught them just before they were huge." We have always wanted to do this song by the B-52's, "Love Shack." Everybody knows "Love Shack." It is the most innocuous song. And we wanted to do it And the problem was that half of it is sung by girls and we don't have any girls in the band. And it is really tight harmonies, and they don't do that anymore. The Dixie Chicks are not around. So when we heard Everlife, we thought maybe we could talk them into doing our parody of "Love Shack." And we did. And they came up from Nashville to our studio in western Pennsylvania. They spent the weekend [there] working on this song with us, and they were just dynamite. And now "Love Shack" has become "Meschach" on Adam Up. And they did a dynamite job. And while they were in the studio, they lowered themselves to the level of doing background vocals of some other songs. So they are on four or five songs.
We also had Weird Al Yankovic, patron saint of parody music, his drummer played seven songs on Biblical Graffiti. Weird Al and his drummer are the original founding members of the Weird Al band. And I was back and forth in contact with Charlie Daniels because we wanted to do "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," and he was sick and could not do it, but his live violin player, John Perundo (sp?) happened to live near us. So he came into the studio, and boy he sawed it right off in two or three takes. It was dynamite. He did a fantastic job. So we have had a long history of folks coming in.
On the difference between studio and live.
In the studio, we go drum sound for drum sound, lick for lick ... we get the exact sound of the guitar and the exact sound of the bass amp. We monkey with the vocal for hours trying to get it to sound not only doing good imitation of the guy, but also trying to emulate the exact same microphones they use, the same kind of wires, the same size room they were in. Because every little detail makes a better project.
Now of course we can't do that live, so what we do — I have a rather sophisticated guitar set up, so we can emulate all the guitar sounds with foot pedals and stuff. And I can get all the sounds I need. And there are not many sounds, so that is pretty safe. And we have a special drum kit that can be tuned fast — so we can tune it up or tune it down for a song. It s not a big deal. And Jay can change his voice — he can do an imitation. But in reality, the difference is not as strong live, and it is almost like your brain fills in the blanks. You see where we are going with it, and your brain fills in the blanks. And people say, "Man, you sound even more like them when you are playing live." That's just not true. It is your mind playing tricks on you.
On the dilemma of secular music and ApologetiX's work with it.
Well, when we were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-years-old, when we first came to know the Lord, [we] ... all trashed our entire record collections and stopped listening to music. I think that that's a very common experience for a lot of people; [they say], "I don't want to be listening to this music." I never really went back to it, but it got to the point where, if "Hotel California" was playing on the muzak, I wouldn't go running out of the store, like I have done in the past.
In an effort for research, we study the charts, we look at what's popular, what people are listening to, and then we go and learn a song. We don't sit around and listen to it for fun. It's kind of like a doctor: doctors examine people's bodies like, "I have a job to do here." We're grown-ups ... Ozzy's not going to make me kill anybody at this point.
We look at this research like we're septic tank cleaners, digging into the muck and mire and seeing if we can make a ministry out if it. ... Ninety percent of the songs we cover now-days are just a singer sharing from his heart, and [not] necessarily that. We judge people on a person-by-person basis, on what they say and on what they do. If we ever clump a whole bunch of people and [judge] them all together, everybody's down your shirt for being a bigot, or whatever. "All Spanish people are like this. All deaf people are like that. All white people, or black people, or Chinese people, or Jewish people."
In the same way, artists would be really insulted if we just said, "All non-Christian music is evil." Do you sing "Happy Birthday"? "Well, that's different." What is different about it? "Well they are just saying about Happy Birthday." Ok, do you sing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand?" by the Beatles? I mean, who has a problem with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand?" Raise your hand. Okay, get out of here; get a life. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." I mean, it is very benign. I mean there are other Beatles songs that aren't, but you can go song-by-song and say, "We judge a song before we judge a person — by what they say and what they do." And some songs are not necessarily evil. Sometimes there are good songs by a bad band that did other evil things.
On the other hand, there are some songs that are so bad, I can't believe my twelve-year-old niece knows the words. I can't believe that these kids know them, and I feel we have a responsibility to fulfill this and say that we are going to give them an option. Since they are going to listen to this music anyway, we are going to take an opportunity to teach them some Scripture.
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