Interviews: Steve Taylor

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Cornerstone Magazine
Q1(?) 1994, Volume 22, Issues 102/103
© 1994 Cornerstone Communications, Inc.
Pages 73, 75-76, 91

by Dave Canfield

We really got a kick out of your "Trekker Of The Month" picture.

Good, glad to hear it. That was taken in Pamukkale, Turkey, at a limestone cliff. Over the years, stalactites have formed around all these hot springs. It's like nothing you've ever seen. It's so soft you have to walk around barefoot. If you wear shoes it'll make permanent imprints, and they don't want that.

Why go around the world just to shoot a rock video?

Warner was interested in doing some sort of video production, and since I had a fair amount of experience I just started dreaming on it--if I could do anything, what would I do? Instead of staying in Nashville and trying to use the same locations a thousand country groups are using, or building something in a studio which costs a ton of money, we could find the best backdrops in the world and just go there and shoot. You'd think it would cost lots of money, but I called travel agents and was able to get four round-the-world fares for about three thousand dollars each--not too bad. That took care of the crew and myself. We also took part of the budget and bought a thirty-five millimeter camera so we could shoot the project with real film instead of sixteen millimeter video. Video is cheaper but you don't get the same look. Then I had to decide where I wanted to go.

I wanted to go to really remote places, and I figured not many people have seen North Vietnam or the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. Well, I quickly found out Tibet was a no-go. The Chinese have overrun it, and it's very difficult to get in as a tourist, much less to film. So we wound up going to Nepal which is right to the south but still in the Himalayas. It didn't look like Vietnam was gonna happen either. There still aren't official ties with the United States. But we sent in a request and they decided at the last minute the filming would be a good idea.

Were you making any kind of statement by choosing those particular countries?

I just wanted to find a backdrop no one else had used, and I figured North Vietnam would be real interesting with the combination of Asian and French architecture in it. So for better or worse, there was no political agenda at all in going there. Still, it was funny--Oliver Stone can't even get in to film a movie, but somehow this was the first music video ever shot in Vietnam.

Another reason I thought it would be especially interesting is I don't exactly blend into crowds, especially crowds where the average height is four foot eleven.

How did the Vietnamese react to the presence of an American filming crew?

They were really friendly. It amazed me, but nobody seemed to be carrying grudges. Our guide spoke quite matter-of-factly about having to send her children out of the city when the Americans were bombing Hanoi. So on one hand it was real intense, but not tense. Once, we went out on these little fishing boats into the China Beach area to do some filming, and it turned out only two people could fit in the boat, myself and the oarsman. And this guy was a former Vietcong who'd had his leg blown off by an American mine. He even bailed water out of the boat with an old GI helmet. It was wild. You'd have thought he'd have been a little uptight, but he wasn't.

What kind of personal reaction did that engender for you filming in and around cultures so much more in touch with various kinds of poverty? It had to be an incredibly surreal kind of experience filming a rock video around all that.

It was. When we were shooting in Hong Kong hardly anyone even noticed. In fact, I climbed up on this bamboo scaffolding while a worker was putting it up and he didn't even notice. In Hong Kong our biggest worry was that someone would come up and want to see our filming permit while we were guerrilla shooting.

But in places like Kathmandu or Hanoi or Turkey, people don't even know what a music video is. When we were setting up in Kathmandu, this huge crowd gathered on the street. The music started blaring out of the loudspeakers and I was moving and I'm sure they had never seen anything like it before.

In Vietnam we were getting ready to do a shot, and this guy snuck up behind me and felt my legs because he thought I must be standing on stilts. It wasn't necessarily culture shock, but because so many things like that happened, our eyes were always open. In many ways it's going to be hard to take a vacation again, because even though the filming was really tiring--getting up early to get dawn's light and staying up late to get the light of dusk--you still can't find a better way to see a country. That's because when you're filming you really have to look at everything to decide where to set up the next shot.

Did you wife, Debby, participate in the shooting for this project?

No, actually she could have and she decided not to. Once I'm directing a video, especially if I'm in it, my mind is on that and nothing else. When we were shooting "Jim Morrison's Grave" in Paris, we were supposed to be meeting friends in the middle of the countryside three hours away. The trouble was we were supposed to be meeting them in two hours, and here we were in this graveyard dancing around Jim Morrison's tomb. She's thinking, if we miss this rendezvous point we'll never find them. You know, we don't even speak French.

At the same time she notices some particularly nasty looking German punk rockers who don't like the fact that I am filming around this hallowed place even though everybody else is drinking and writing on the cemetery walls. So she sees these guys getting mad and starting to get threatening, and of course the whole time I'm oblivious to everything except getting the next shot. She decided that the idea of doing that for three weeks in countries where who knows what we're going to find wasn't really going to be such a good time.

Let's talk about the new single "Bannerman." Steve Taylor comes along and notices the little guy out in the crowd with the "John 3:16" sign and decides there might be something worth saying about it that isn't just cynical or jaded. As someone who's so concerned with the state of the arts in Christendom, why write a song about that guy?

Well, I have to be careful how I say this. Chagall Guevara ended up playing in a lot of dark places, and in retrospect I wonder if there is a tendency to think you get a lot more accomplished than you actually do in those situations. I would probably be lying to myself if I said I really believed that now.

Frankly, when I was doing straight Gospel music, if I had seen a guy holding up a banner that said "John 3:16" in the middle of a football game, that might have seemed a little stupid, but because of Chagall I saw it in a new light. It's not very artful, and who knows ultimately what kind of fruit it produces, but I think the idea of a guy standing up and holding this banner that lets the Bible speak for itself is kind of cool.

It reminded me, most of us that come to Christ often come because of very unartistic methods. I don't really have the nerve that these guys do. I don't think I'd have written "Bannerman" five years ago, but it was actually the first song I wrote for this album. In fact, it was the first song I had written on my own in five years.

But what about bands currently on secular labels who have succeeded in what Chagall Guevara set out to do? That is, they seem to have found the difference between being a band and actually preaching the gospel.

Yeah, that's exactly it. You get the sense with some bands on secular labels that they wouldn't hesitate to talk about their faith. And with others you equally get the sense that that is one of the last things they would ever want to do. In the course of what Chagall did, we seemed to have defined well what we weren't, but what exactly were we? The definition wasn't quite as clear there.

Do you think there was a specific moment when you knew Chagall Guevara was over?

I don't know. It was probably a combination of events over six months. We did a tour with Squeeze in England that went really well. But the financial pressures kept increasing, particularly for the guys who had families and children. One member quit for a brief time, and that seemed to be the first irrevocable tear in the fabric--when everybody started thinking, Wow, maybe this isn't going to last as long as we had hoped.

I remember talking to Dave Perkins, and at that time his perspective was that so many bands try for home runs, and that was a good thing. But it was also a good thing if you only made it to first base or second base, the important thing being to take your turn at the bat. He didn't feel those swings were wasted.

There was strong vision and unity for most of the time the band was together. I still think about it, and, thankfully, everybody is still friends. And I feel like we made a good record, but it was one of those stories where everybody put it on the line and went for it, and it didn't really work the way we all hoped it would.

These frustrations seem to have crept in lyrically on your new record. "Sock Heaven" is a good example.

I wrote "Sock Heaven" because I needed to figure out what was going on. "One little band spinning round together / couldn't cling forever / God, I think I'm losing my mates." At points it felt that God was sovereignly watching us dangle. I was even a little afraid that the song might sound a little whiny. Maybe if people know it's about the band they'll understand.

One thing that's always stuck out about you as an artist is your love for the misfits, the people who don't know where they fit in. After watching you go through the experience of the band it was extremely encouraging to see those kinds of lyrics just pouring out of you.

The band was, in many ways, five years of learning about my own sinfulness and ego--you know, all the nasty stuff I never had to deal with when I was my own boss. All of a sudden I was having to make decisions with other people. It was probably the equivalent of living in a community. The bottom line was finding out I'm not such a great guy after all.

Even before I got into music, I decided I'd never want to be a pastor 'cause I could never sit through committee meetings. So what do I do? I join a band and we have to do conference calls to decide who's gonna take a shower next. All of a sudden, I found myself fighting for my turf, trying to make other people see I was right.

It's that moment when you say what you wish with all your heart you hadn't said, and then you look across the table and all those people are looking back and you know you're exposed.

Yeah, wow! You really nailed it. I'm sure people read interviews and think, Oh, temptations in the band--women on the road, booze, drugs. But that wasn't it at all for us. It was working together. I mean, my wife and I never have arguments like we were having in the band. I just didn't know all that flesh was there.

Were there any other hard parts about making the switch to band member from solo artist?

Well, I think being in the band made me long for the days when I could stand around after the concert talking to a bunch of people. One of the tough things about playing clubs was that the typical reaction you'd get was people coming weaving up afterwards with their eyes glazed, saying, "Man, y'all were good." And we'd say "Ya know, thanks," and they'd say, "No, man, y'all are good!" I hope I don't sound disrespectful... it's not that I didn't appreciate those people. It was just so difference than what I was used to. Before, I was really making contact with people, talking about the songs after the show and having deeper conversations.

Those connections can be hard to make. I remember when you decided to cancel your whole North American tour for 1990. Besides protest over the song, "I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good," there was a lot of unfounded criticism over the album cover. Having had more than a few of those experiences in the Christian marketplace, why put out an album that makes a lot of the statements you made on previous records seem pretty tame in comparison?

I suppose the I Predict 1990 record was difficult for some people to get into. A few of the songs were probably too clever for my own good. But I'd always assumed criticism came with the territory. I suppose around that time I just got a little impatient with it. I'd always been ready for confrontation. Not in an aggressive or angry sense--

You mean, "come let us reason together"?

Yes, I was ready for controversy for the right reasons. But I think with that record a lot of the controversy was for all the wrong reasons. People, many of whom had never read the lyrics to the song "I Blew up the Clinic Real Good," assumed it encouraged folks to go out and blow up abortion clinics.

You seem to have come through all these hard experiences without becoming bitter.

I think it had to do with growing up in church and seeing the full scope of humanity. Our church had four or five hundred members. I'd see them during the week. We'd sit in meetings together and I'd see some lose their temper and get real irrational at certain points. But they were still part of my church, part of my family. Not to sound preachy, but how can a Christian really get bitter when you not only realize your own sinfulness but also Christ's perfection and His love for all of humanity. Where would we possibly get the idea that we have a right to become bitter about anything?

Speaking of church family, I was wondering what it's been like between you and your parents through all these ups and downs?

Privately, I think my mom and dad weren't particularly thrilled with the idea of the band even though they never really mentioned it. I know they were very happy when I decided to do another Gospel record, but there's never been any sort of tear in the fabric of our relationship. Love was never something given conditionally at all. They taught me to see God's blessing in all kinds of different circumstances. And they've never based their theology on pragmatic things. You know, the kind that say, If things are going well then God likes me, and if they aren't then God doesn't. Their faith is balanced and they're very committed to it. I suppose that's why our relationship has been so stable over the years.

Do you see the dichotomy between the active faith of your parents and the laissez-faire approach to family in the nineties?

Oh, yeah. For those in this generation that were raised this way, Jesus is just something you grab a little bit of with your smorgasbord.

Between the Swedish meatballs and the lasagna, between the materialism and the self-fulfillment or counseling or whatever?

Yeah, right, exactly. I touched on all that in "The Moshing Floor" when I said, "Malls and religion / build the new forts." Really, it's sort of amusing to see parents wringing their hands over "Beavis and Butthead" or moshing. The line "All you baby boomers / feigning dismay / you hired the nanny / you faked her resume," was a way of saying, Hey, you guys made this, so why are you asking psychiatrists what's going on? These are the very fruits of your labor.

Or lack of labor--letting culture raise your kids.

Right, and I don't take the whole thing too seriously. There's always different expressions going; stage diving is just the latest one. I don't think it's evil or anything. There's all kinds of metaphors when you look at whatever new craze there is. As far as moshing, I sorta liked the thought of people bouncing off of each other and reacting instead of acting.

Do you feel better able to explain your sense of vision now?

Yes, I think so. If I'm fortunate enough and if Jesus doesn't come back before I'm seventy or eighty, what would I hope to have accomplished with all those years? The people I really admire for what they've accomplished with their lives are people that, if they did art, their point of view got through very clearly. Christian thinkers and writers and even evangelists like Billy Graham or C. S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer were people that, number one, had done a good job of communicating Christianity to their culture. And hopefully the totality of their lives backs up what they talked about.

It kind of comes down to character, I guess.

Yeah, it does, doesn't it? And something like that is so ongoing. I mean, every day you just try to keep doing what God wants. I hope when it's all over I'll be able to look my wife in the eye and say, I was true to you for all of these fifty years. As far as the larger picture of my music, I just hope by God's grace that when it's all over it will have helped people to understand better what Christianity is all about.

Thanks, Steve, for your time.

Thanks, Dave. You are the greatest interviewer in the history of Western civilization. All should bow before thy feet.