Kutless: Making a Big Bang in Christian Music
- Thursday, October 26, 2006
Just moments into an early afternoon interview, Kutless’ Jon Micah Sumrall seems weary.
His voice gravelly and sluggish, the 25-year-old lead singer is in the midst of a tour stop in Toledo, Ohio. As his band nears the end of a successful, yet grueling, road stint, a nasty cough has bedeviled Sumrall all week. His 18-month-old son, Caleb, plays nearby and, based on the considerable hubbub, seems to be enjoying himself. “He’s a maniac,” Sumrall says softly with a barely audible laugh.
Despite all these vicissitudes, Sumrall manages to forge ahead with the conversation in a cordial and cogent fashion – just another ordinary day in the music business.
But standard procedure aside, there’s been nothing commonplace about the explosive rise of Kutless.
In case you didn’t get the memo, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet has emerged as one of Christian music’s hottest acts. So hot, in fact, that the band’s latest project, "Hearts of the Innocent" (BEC), debuted at No. 45 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart (selling more than 21,000 copies the first week), No. 2 on Nielsen SoundScan’s Top Christian/Gospel Albums Overall chart and No. 1 on the Top Christian Rock/Alternative Albums chart. Even more impressive? In less than four years, Kutless has sold more than 725,000 albums.
Success is nothing new for Kutless. The band’s 2002 self-titled first project scanned almost 200,000 copies, giving the group the honorable distinction of having the Tooth & Nail family’s second fastest-selling debut (behind only Jeremy Camp’s). The band’s subsequent albums, "Sea of Faces" and worship-driven "Strong Tower," posted even stronger numbers. Not bad for an erstwhile college worship group.
The facts and figures behind Kutless are extraordinary. But what’s truly extraordinary – if not uncanny – is the breakout success Kutless has enjoyed without the benefit of general market radio airplay and only modest mainstream exposure. (Its song “All the Words” was featured on a March episode of NBC sitcom “Scrubs”; and Target stores recently began airing the group’s video of new single, “Shut Me Out”, for its exclusive Red Channel.) What’s more, no other rock act in recent years has realized such an exceptional ascent focusing primarily on the Christian audience.
Boiling It Down
So what’s the formula for igniting such fast-burning success? Sumrall and others credit a variety of key factors:
A balancing act. Kutless deftly intersperses intense rock numbers with earnest ballads. “We know how to ride the fine line between providing good rock & roll cuts along with softer songs that play well on radio,” Sumrall explains. “I believe that combination has helped us to grow quickly.”
A road-warrior mentality. Playing more than 600 shows over the course of four years, Kutless has developed a strong following across the country. “We’ve also been privileged to play large events like Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades, Luis Palau Festivals, Harvest Crusades with Greg Laurie and major Christian music festivals,” Sumrall says.
A proclivity for well-penned lyrics. Sumrall is among the genre’s most sincere and pensive scribes, tackling subjects such as brokenness, suicide and self-mutilation. Producer Aaron Sprinkle (Jeremy Camp, Hawk Nelson) also serves as a song co-writer, providing even more depth. “We consider Aaron our sixth band member in a way,” says Sumrall. “He was a big part of the writing process, and his experience was helpful when sculpting the songs.”
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