David Crowder: Left of Center
- Doug Van Pelt CCM Magazine
- 2008 1 Jan
When his parents named him David Wallace Crowder, they put their son’s destiny in good standing. His namesake, the King of Israel that the Messiah’s lineage came from, is arguably the greatest worship songwriter of all time. He was also known to be a little unorthodox. Prior to one of his great songs (Psalm 34), it's footnoted that it was written just after he feigned insanity by drooling all over his facial hair. Not the type of reverent behavior one would expect from a worship leader. In a way, though, it’s kind of a beautiful portrait of the sacred together with the profane. The Sovereign and Holy Creator of the universe choosing to work through and bless broken, dirty vessels like us.
Case in point: When Crowder was first married, a slightly disturbing habit was discovered—sleepwalking. “The first time,” David explains, “I woke up when I heard my wife say something. All I heard was, ‘Explode. Dr. Pepper. Freezer.’ I put together in my sleep that, ‘There’s a Dr. Pepper in the freezer, and it’s gonna explode. Explode?!’ So I’m thinking, ‘Things are going to blow apart! I’ve got to save my family,’ so I sprint into the kitchen, grab the Dr. Pepper out of the freezer, run as fast as I can to the front door, throw open the front door, run out on the porch and throw it as far as I can. It’s totally a Bruce Willis moment. I think I’ve saved us. I threw the exploding object into the street. It’s laying out there, and I feel really good. There’s some college kids across the street. They start hootin’ and hollerin.’ I’m like, [nods head, throws the thumb’s up signal] ‘Absolutely!’ I head back in and Toni goes, ‘Did you go out like that?’ I go, ‘Yeah,’ and I’m totally in my skivvies, you know? There I am, giving them the ‘Absolutely! You know it, saved my wife right there! Give it up!’ It was one of those in-between waking and sleeping things.”
Example #2: “We wake up one day to a golf club arriving in the mail. Come to find out, I had ordered it while watching a late night television infomercial. It was no golf club any sane person would order. It’s like armor-piercing metal or something. She says, ‘I heard you. I asked you what you were doing, and you said you were ordering a golf club.’ I had no recollection whatsoever. It was the middle of the night. We now know that there are things I can accomplish while I’m in a semi-conscious state that are pretty fantastic.”
Example #3: “She wakes up one evening, after this has become a pattern, to rummaging in the closet. She yells, ‘What are you doing?’ Our closet was tiny. It was a sliding door thing with her stuff on one side and mine on the other. And my side was open, but she couldn’t see me, so that means I’m inside her side behind the door. There’s not much space to begin with, and it’s just weird. What am I doing in the closet on her side? It’s just not anything good going on in there, surely. ‘What are you doing?’ And I lean out from behind the deal, and I mumble nonsense. I’m like, ‘Shugga-vada-dada.’ She said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Shugga-vada-dada.’ She says, ‘Spell that.’ I get mad and huff out loud. She tells me, ‘I hear running water. What are you doing?’ And it turns out I’m totally peeing in her shoes. I’m determined to pee in her shoes. It was awful!
“That would be profane,” he admits. Now, it goes without saying that Crowder looks a little different; but this report of strange behavior somehow matches the coolest and strangest haircut in the modern worship scene.
After accepting the assignment from CCM to “capture the real David Crowder in story,” my wife and I head north to Waco, Texas, to try to get to know the goateed wonder. We meet up at Crowder’s church home, University Baptist Church. From outward appearances, the church has a pretty normal-sounding name and is housed in a pretty normal-looking building.
Once inside, though, there are subtle reminders everywhere that its inhabitants are thoughtful people with great attention to detail—just slightly left of normal. Recycled corrugated tin kickboards line the bottom half of the dark-toned hallways that route visitors either to the windowless sanctuary in the middle or past each of the fashionably-decorated offices.
Following the lone sound of activity in the quiet building, it is pretty easy to spot Crowder’s empty office: an electric guitar is balanced on a sofa, and a lightweight mountain bike with a towering seat height leans against a wall.
Like the polite southern gentleman he is, the first thing he does is offer us a Dr. Pepper (naturally) or snack before guiding us on a tour. Complimented on the look and feel of the building, he is quick to credit his wife, Toni, for decorating everything in the church with a great eye for comfort, function and an appealing art aesthetic. There isn’t a blank white wall space anywhere in sight—color is everywhere, albeit tranquil. The main sanctuary has candles draping the platform at most every opportune location. Large clumps of melted wax adorn the side and edges of the stage and onto the floor. “Oh yes,” our guide affirms, “we’ve gotta have candles.”
On the stage there are the usual instruments (drums, piano, guitar cabinets), plus some unusual gadgets and new-fangled instruments used to introduce new songs. In the center is a flying-v controller for the ever-popular video game Guitar Hero; the little kid inside Crowder is visible as he technically explains the wizardry involved in re-wiring the plastic instrument to trigger various samples. There is also an antique portable multi-meter measuring device in a case gutted to house a Line-6 POD guitar effects box. The ingenuity involved and coolness factor of these gadgets is quite impressive. The guy’s a tech freak. Big time.
Hand of God
As we settle down for an interview, Crowder shares how he came to Christ as a young boy, then apologized to his parents. “They were very protective. They didn’t want me to make a commitment too soon. They wanted me to be sure I knew what was going on.
So, we were up in Tulsa, Okla., and we were at Camp Meeting. I was in the children’s church there. I had terrible separation anxiety, from practically being born in the First Baptist nursery. I got carted away to class for hours, but eventually it was cool, because the guy leading children’s church had a purple puppet named Eugene. At some point in the evening after we’d sung songs with Eugene and had a fantastic time with Eugene, he said, ‘Eugene, would you like Jesus in your heart?’ And Eugene said, ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want what Eugene’s got,’ and so I was led to Christ by a puppet ministry,” he chuckles. “So, never underestimate the power of puppets!
I was terrified when my parents picked me up, because I was afraid they were going to be mad at me. I knew, ‘Don’t make a commitment too soon, before you know what you’re doing,’ so on the ride back to the hotel I’m scared to death. I can still feel it. I was terrified, so I start crying. My parents were like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I asked Jesus into my heart. Eugene did it; I did it.’ Of course, they were thrilled to death. That was when my relationship with Jesus began—it was at the age of seven after Eugene the puppet asked Jesus into his heart.”
Why Knock Rock
Crowder’s involvement in music started early on as well, after his mom recognized he could bang out recognizable melodies on the piano without any lessons (which soon followed). Later on, it was one of those anti-rock seminars that turned him on to the heavy stuff. It was a video called Hell’s Bells, and the segment about backward masking featured the Queen hit “Another One Bites the Dust” (which it was “surmised” included the message “start to smoke marijuana” in reverse). The riff in that tune and the AC-DC title track were enough to launch his album-buying habit shortly thereafter.
Fast forward several years, and Crowder heads to Waco to join his friend at Baylor University. Even though he was being groomed to take over his dad’s insurance business, he felt called to try his hand at a music degree.
He helps out with music for a Wednesday night youth group service across town for awhile. Then he helps start University Baptist Church become a space where people can feel as free about asking questions without the knee jerk reaction to immediately answer them. At first his help was instrumental accompaniment—and then he started singing. “It was awful at first,” he admits.
His friend and pastor that helped start the church, Chris Seay, groomed Crowder’s musical skills and slowly weaned him from the background to the front of the stage. “We have some early recordings that we don’t talk about,” he laughs. Crowder and his band actually recorded an album around that time. (Apparently, not too long ago all the remaining copies were taken by his wife to an undisclosed dumpster and forever erased from the annals of music history.)
Crowder sees his voice as a “work in progress,” pointing to its development over the course of the last few albums. While that may be true, it’s more likely a humble act of self-deprecation, as no one seems to be complaining about anything that comes from this popular songwriting team. Another example of him reflecting the spotlight away from himself comes when I ask him to share his advice on how to write a good worship song. His response is immediate: “I don’t know, let’s call Chris Tomlin and ask him!”
David Crowder Band (purposefully omitting the pronoun “the” in front of its name) is essentially an honest-to-goodness extension of University Baptist Church. Through an organic process and friendship, with a couple of lineup changes due to the transient nature of a college-based congregation, these six musicians—B-Wack, Hogan, Jack Parker, Mike D, Mark Waldrop and Crowder—ended up onstage together. This organic process helps make for the type of creativity and what Crowder calls “conversations” to develop in a free atmosphere that captures the “realness” of what probably turns people on to their worship songs. It is possibly the antithesis of a contrived hit-making formula.
Ironically, the new album, Remedy, is perhaps DCB’s finest recorded moment to date. Like its predecessor, A Collision (and B Collision, if you count them as a whole), almost every detail is incredibly well thought out, each part and nuance serving a purpose. This even includes the pervasive green color in the packaging, reinforcing the holistic redemptive approach of believers taking an active—if not leading—role in being responsible with and the care of creation.
This attention to detail is more than likely a byproduct of very creative individuals getting together and needing as many outlets as possible to channel it. Crowder’s already got the next album planned, by the way. That should come as no surprise here, as Remedy was setup with the end of A Collision. “Our intent this time was to put together a record of really simple songs.” It serves almost as a relief from the weightier subject of mortality explored on that one, coincidentally, before they had to deal with it in the tragic death of the church’s pastor, Kyle Lake.
As a result of coming through to the other side with hope, the next logical step was some sort of action. “If this is real,” Crowder says, “then whatever we believe as a community is going to result in actions.”
The band started thinking about music and its role in social change. The recent Red Campaign got their attention; several large corporations channeled their focus together to raise awareness on poverty (third world debt) and suffering (AIDS), and in so doing were actually aligning themselves with the very mission of the church.
This discussion was going on as the members of DCB began writing the album. They gave themselves the challenge of, How can we then make music that fits? How can we use music in a way that both facilitates enunciation of where we are now and, at the same time, point in a direction that will make a difference?
“It was a much harder task than initially thought,” Crowder says. “It’s really a hard thing to make a song that has really grand ideas of justice and not sound trite. That was our intent, but to pack these big ideas into four minutes is hard.”
One listen to Remedy’s closing number with these goals in mind might lead one to believe with hope that the whole world is indeed “about to change.”
Doug Van Pelt is publisher/editor of HM Magazine (hmmag.com) and author of Rock Stars On God (Relevant). A hard music expert, he eats, sleeps and plays rock, metal, punk, alternative and sometimes even emo music. myCCM.org/hmmag-doug
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