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Survival of the Fittest

  • Christa Farris Contributing Writer
  • Published May 09, 2003
Survival of the Fittest

When it comes to survival in the business of rock ’n’ roll, the odds are heavily stacked against bands. Watch almost any episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” and you’ll hear a familiar story of musicians experiencing the traditional 15 minutes of fame, only to be dumped by the record label and have their albums end up in the bargain bins at Tower Records.

And with a much smaller and even more unpredictable fanbase, that story seems to play out in fast forward in the Christian music world. It’s not very often that a Christian band stays viable past a decade. But that’s exactly what Audio Adrenaline has accomplished with nine albums to its credit, including its latest effort, "Worldwide" (ForeFront), and a tour itinerary that never seems to quit.

So what’s the secret to success for a band that makes a living encouraging youth groups? Humor, catchy songs, plenty of prayer and a policy of checking egos at the door.

When sitting down for an interview with Audio Adrenaline, it’s best not to prepare a traditional list of questions because the answers will never make an interesting story. But let the band members just be themselves, and you’ll not only learn a lot, but you’ll laugh a lot, too.

As the foursome huddles around a small table to chat, they jokingly provide the dirt on each other the way an older brother would pick on a younger sibling. Known for an undying love for Johnny Cash, filmmaking and an endless knowledge of musical trivia, according to his bandmates, drummer Ben Cissell reveals that AA frontman Mark Stuart has an identity crisis.

“The funny thing about Mark is that he wants to be ‘Johnny Hollywood,’ but he’s always going to be ‘Virgil Owensboro,’” Ben says with a maniacal laugh. “He wants to be the guy who hangs out in Hollywood and dresses really nicely, but he can’t hide the fact that he’s from Owensboro, Kentucky. It comes out of him every once in a while — the ‘Opie-ness.’ He’s fun, but he’s still got a bit of the mullet inside of him. He really likes all the Hollywood style, but his favorite movie is 'Footloose.'”

“No, it’s 'Jaws,'” Stuart retorts.

“OK, so his favorite movies are 'Footloose' and 'Jaws,'” says Cissell. “But it’s not really the movie — it’s the lifestyle. He wishes he were Kevin Bacon and had that 'Footloose' sort of life.”

“That simply isn’t true,” Stuart argues.

Five minutes later when we’ve begun another conversation, Stuart absently adds, “Maybe George Clooney but not Kevin Bacon. Dude, I’ve only seen 'Footloose' once my entire life.”

Cissell looks at him and jokes, “Man, are you still talking about that?”

But long after the teasing has ended, the men have nothing but compliments for each other. Cissell acknowledges that Stuart’s spiritual leadership and sharp business sense have held the band together for 11 years. Stuart claims it’s bassist (and the only AA member sporting a mohawk) Will McGinniss who has done so. “Will is the heart of Audio Adrenaline — the oil that keeps us spinning. He has this huge compassionate heart and works the hardest, specifically on the road."

Rounding out the group and stepping up with more lead vocals (you heard his voice on the band’s recent hit “Ocean Floor”) is the occasionally shy, sensitive guitarist Tyler Burkum. While Stuart says Burkum will have a successful solo career long after Audio Adrenaline has retired, Burkum is self-deprecating about his talent and laughs at his inability to get a guitar endorsement “because I can’t sell myself.”

But as the band members keep marching on in the Christian market as headliners for the “Go Show” tour with MercyMe and openers Kutless and The Swift, they are perfectly content with where they are — with or without guitar endorsements. And unlike labelmate Stacie Orrico or the band’s friends in P.O.D. and Blindside, they have no aspirations of playing in the general market.

“There are a lot of friends of ours who are crossing over [into the general market], and I think that’s the best thing for them,” Cissell remarks. “I just don’t think we’re the right band for that. Our passion is for youth groups. We love the church, and [we] feel our calling is more to encourage church kids. Every kid has struggles, and we want to help them. Our home is in Christian music.”

Extending that call to the church on a practical level, the band has recently taken ministry a step further by establishing The Go Foundation alongside MercyMe. With the theme of missions running through songs like “Hands and Feet” and the band’s new single, “Dirty,” former preacher’s kid Stuart and his cohorts want to encourage kids to take action and serve.

The Go Foundation will highlight 10 to 15 “under-the-radar” missions organizations the bands want to help promote. Acting as a link to plug kids directly into an organization that matches their strengths, the effort is more than just a one-time mission trip. It’s a way to encourage kids to constantly use their gifts to help others, whether they’re talented at sports, crafts or drama.

But whether it’s this new endeavor or simply chatting with fans after a concert, the band’s goals are to be humble, approachable and to write good songs that connect with listeners. “We’re not a band that’s terribly musical and [likes] indulging ourselves on stage to please ourselves,” McGinniss says. “We’re a band that’s more about the audience and getting them stoked. It’s seeing the kids’ faces light up when we play their favorite song. That’s what we feed off of.”

Continuing where McGinniss leaves off, Stuart adds, “Our longevity doesn’t come from our calculated marketing savvy. I just think it comes from people being moved by a song or two on a record, and they want to come and hear it live.”


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