Austin Roots, Catholic Fruits
Even within the wildly diverse world of alternative pop music, the Rock Bottom Choir is an unusual entity.
Consider: How many artists played on major commercial radio stations found their muse in a confessional at Medjugorje? How many bands making contemporary Catholic music have major-label ambitions and credibility in the secular music community? And how many spiritual CDs are funded by Gene Simmons of Kiss?
The Rock Bottom Choir, a collaboration of musicians prominent in the musical incubator that is the Austin, Texas, music scene, can claim all these oddities as parts of its life story.
The band's lead singer and songwriter, Matt McCormack, was a self-described “buffet Catholic” when his life — and his songwriting — were changed during a profound conversion experience at Medjugorje.
Christ spoke to his heart during confession, he says, telling him he'd lost his way. “I promised him I would make this record,” says McCormack.
The fruit of that promise is “For All the Saints, Vol. 1,” which is currently in rotation on adult-alternative and rock radio in the Austin area. “It's a kind of floaty, atmospheric record,” says the bandleader. “I wanted to make an ‘apparitional soundtrack’ of what I'd experienced.”
“It took me a while to get it together,” he adds. “When you want to write songs and relate them to each other and deal with the same subject matter, it takes longer.”
Helping McCormack with the songwriting was Will Sexton, a noted songwriter and guitarist, and Ryan Carter, lead singer and guitarist for another popular Austin band. They formed Rock Bottom Choir with George Reiff (bass), Joey Shuffield (drums) and Bill Carter (banjo and mandolin).
McCormack was able to fund the project with money received from Simmons for the rights to one of his songs. The album was recorded quickly; Michael Thompson, touring keyboardist for the Eagles, helped produce and overdub multiple instruments onto the tracks.
You can hear this collaborative spirit in Rock Bottom Choir's distinct sound, which conveys a laid-back sense of musical joy.
A good deal of space is given to the individual instruments to explore and flesh out the melodies. This airiness meshes well with the lyrics, which are simple and direct. “I wanted the lyrics to be like prayers for children,” McCormack explains. “Lyrically, it comes across as very childlike, very universal.”
Having said that, McCormack is quick to point out that he's leery of being cast in the “Christian rock” category.
“I'd hate it to be labeled if it means I'm not going to reach someone else who might not think like that,” he explains. “We've gotten more love out of mainstream radio than Christian, because you have to go through Nashville, and they'll veto anything with the Blessed Virgin on the cover. I like standing up for what I do, but I like mainstream radio, too. I'd be cheating myself if all of a sudden it was, ‘Matt McCormack, a Christian artist.’”
At the same time, McCormack acknowledges a simple reality of the music industry: It's not known for harboring a special love for Catholics in its heart.
“Our lawyer just got back from Los Angeles and he was telling us, ‘Man, this is the hardest sell in the world,’” he explains. “I'd like to get a record deal and distribution, a way to turn people on to this kind of thing. We lucked out here [in Austin], because everybody knew who we were before it came out. They listened with open ears. But that won't be the same for us in Chicago or Detroit.”
Biases or no, the word on Rock Bottom Choir is slowly gaining exposure. EWTN recently added the album's first track, “How Great Thou Art, Pt. 2” to its Catholic Jukebox.
“The music we play is what I believe is the best of the best — not just the quality of the music, but the lyrics have to be right on the money,” says Thom Price, EWTN's director of programming. “What we tend to focus on is giving praise and honor to God. When I heard ‘How Great Thou Art,’ I thought that song really works for the show.”
Jennifer Sparrow, webmaster for the Oblates of Divine Mercy website (saint-faustina.com), heard about the band through a fellow oblate in Massachusetts.
“They have a very cool and distinctive sound — one that, I think, is not traditionally connected to ‘Jesus music,’” she explains. “Rock Bottom Choir has a sound that could attract people who may not otherwise listen to Christian rock. Maybe someone will listen to one of their songs and really think about God for the first time in their life.”
Says EWTN's Price: “When the music is right on in lyrics, and it sounds good — like something you would hear on secular or Protestant radio — then that is an evangelization tool.”
McCormack emphasizes the role music can play as a tool of evangelization and catechesis.
“If people listen and say, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ then I've made them think,” he says. “If our music makes them think about Christ or spirituality for one second, I've done my job.”
Meanwhile, he's hopeful that Rock Bottom Choir can accomplish this by reaching a wide audience.
“We've been getting great, high-profile gigs. We'll do L.A. at the end of September, and I'm hoping for a short tour in October. I'm already writing for the next record and I'm so excited about it. Hopefully, we'll find our niche. I think there are other people out there who think like I do.
“Music plays a huge part in spirituality, with people turning to it as they're trying to get their heads straight,” he continues. “With my music, if they get it, then man that's awesome. If they don't, I understand. But I think that, if you listen, you'll take in the message whether you want to or not.”
Iain Bernhoft writes from Spokane, Washington.
- September 11-17, 2005