If we conducted a musical time-travel experiment and ventured back to 2002, here’s a quick snapshot of what we’d discover about the state of rock & roll.
As boy bands moved the way of the bargain bin, music fans still clamored for the spiritually charged sounds of the likes of Creed and Linkin Park, but they also enthusiastically embraced the garage-rock renderings that launched bands such as The White Stripes and The Strokes into the stratosphere of “cool.” During that same year (in July), a group of unknown Oregonians, known simply as Kutless, quietly debuted their influential brand of rock on a self-titled disc.
Avoiding the usual pre-release publicity hype that would’ve heralded Kutless as the “next big thing,” these rockers didn’t follow the common cookie-cutter scenario in pursuit of success. Instead of making the huge splash at Gospel Music Week in Nashville a few months before their CD dropped or managing to generate the kind of advance buzz from critics that would pique the curiosity of music fans on release week, Kutless remained relatively under the radar – that is, until the band packed up its gear and hit the road.
It was then – when the band took its aggressive rock anthems like “Your Touch” and teamed up with Audio Adrenaline and MercyMe for the “Go Show,” among other influential touring jaunts – that Kutless began to make a mark in front of impressible audiences and rock radio alike. With little fanfare as it traveled coast to coast, the slow build to recognition began and eventually propelled Kutless to becoming the Tooth & Nail family’s fastest-selling debut with almost 150,000 units sold. To put this number in perspective, take a quick look at toothandnail.com to see how many bands comprise the label’s roster, and you’ll find it’s difficult not to be impressed by how this new act managed to stand out with so much friendly competition.
While that figure alone would’ve been enough to highlight an impressive press kit, the band continued to be a Christian music industry success story the rest of the year and beyond. As album sales kept pace with the likes of Michael W. Smith and teen dance act Jump5, the guys continued to be surprised since they never really anticipated such accolades. “We came into all of this really with the intent of doing this the best we could. You never know what could happen with your first record; it’s always a big unknown,” lead singer Jon-Micah Sumrall says. “We’re very pleased that it’s done well, and we’re super thankful everything has come together. Just the fact that we’re able to get into a tour bus after only a year of touring is a miracle!”
And now, almost a year-and-a-half after the release of its debut record, Kutless continues to call the cozy confines of its tour bus “home” most days. But what’s particularly exciting news in the Kutless camp are the new songs to incorporate into its repertoire as it recently released a sophomore disc, "Sea of Faces" (Tooth & Nail).
A Music Maker’s Methodology
Checking in from his home in Medford, Ore., located just north of the California border on a day he describes as “sunny with just a bit of snow on the ground,” Sumrall’s afternoon is decidedly low-key compared to most. With a slew of interviews to give and an inbox full of e-mails to answer, it’s a relaxing pace he hasn’t quite become accustomed to, considering all the big aspirations he’s had on his mind lately.
Like most artists who’ve experienced success with their first record, Sumrall has wrestled with – and is determined to conquer – the proverbial demon known as the “sophomore slump,” where the follow-up attempt doesn’t quite measure up to the success or notoriety of the first effort. While there are no guarantees on how the album will perform compared to its predecessor, he claims the band was intentional on making music that is artful but also commercially viable – something that almost defies the indie spirit of a label like Tooth & Nail.
“A lot of bands, particularly on our label, will just create art; and that’s fine,” Sumrall notes. “They aren’t necessarily designing or creating it with the intent of getting on radio stations. So when we started the process of making a record, we were very intentional in what we did. We weren’t just looking to be another Tooth & Nail band. We really wanted to be a successful band, and we worked very hard at that.”
And while some of the Tooth & Nail faithful would cry “sell-out” at a statement like that, Sumrall confidently maintains he wants to strike an appropriate balance between the two facets with what Kutless musically brings to the table. “Some people create art for themselves, but I like making art for other people. Some artists like to be able to express what they feel, what they think; and it’s kind of a way to vent for them,” he comments. “And while I still enjoy lyrics that talk about things I have dealt with or watched people go through, our intent is to share and make that relate to our audience. When we present music, we want it to be the most enjoyable experience for the listener.”
Aside from contemplating his artistic philosophies, Sumrall also finds himself thinking a lot about Jesus’ crucifixion lately after having viewed Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ." “After seeing this movie, I’ve been absolutely blown away and reminded of God’s love for us and what He went through on that cross,” Sumrall adds. “It’s something you don’t really want to ever think about because it’s so terrible. But, at the same time, you’re so thankful for it; and then once again you realize that sacrifice for us is the greatest thing ever but so horrible at the same time. You just continue to wrestle with it.”
And this wrestling match of sorts is woven into the lyrics of a couple songs on "Sea of Faces," such as its current single, “Treason,” and a track appropriately titled “Passion” that was being considered for one of the soundtracks for "The Passion" at press time.
“I’ve found myself really dealing with this whole issue as I was getting ready to go and see the movie. I didn’t really want to see it, but yet I did,” Sumrall said. “But after seeing it, I realized that this account of what He did for us is going to have a huge impact on a lot of lives. It reminded me of how much God loves us and continues to love us to go through what He did.”
Providing an Alternative to What’s Alternative
Something else that Sumrall and his Kutless compadres, who include guitarists James Mead and Ryan Shrout, drummer Kyle Mitchell and the bassist who just goes by “Stu,” have been sorting through lately are the "Jerry Maguire"-esque kinds of realizations about their mission statement. While they haven’t written it down in “memo” form like the movie, Sumrall said they see the band’s purpose as a two-fold ministry focus.
“Primarily, our first focus is to reach unsaved people,” Sumrall explains. “We hope our music is good and fun enough to bring people in who aren’t Christians. Hopefully we’ll be able to open their eyes and the door to them to realize, for the first time, that you can rock out, have a good time and still be a Christian.
“Our second mission is to provide an alternative to our fellow Christian brothers and sisters. There is a lot of music out there that is very negative. All these bands I enjoyed before we started our band, like Staind, Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, make great music; but some of the messages weren’t quite so positive. I mean, take Puddle of Mudd and its song ‘She F------ Hates Me.’ It’s like, ‘Man, this is probably not the best stuff to be listening to.’ It was very frustrating to me because I didn’t want to listen to that stuff, but I really enjoy the musical style. And so we hope our band can be an alternative to that, and Christians can have fun and be encouraged.”
In the coming months, it looks like the band will get plenty of opportunities to do just that as it launches the “X2004 Sea of Faces Tour” this month with labelmates Thousand Foot Krutch, FM Static, Falling Up and youth speaker Ryan Dobson in more than 30 markets. While road life has become a familiar – and even enjoyable, according to Sumrall – staple for the band, he is quick to throw out a final request before the group starts logging thousands of miles coast to coast. “If anyone wants to donate a Leer jet to us, we’d be willing to take it off his or her hands.”
You’re the Inspiration!
We’ve already established that Kutless knows how to rock, but every band needs its muses, right? So we asked the guys to name the artists who rank as their favorites right now.
2. Johnny Cash
3. Falling Up
4. Foo Fighters
5. Seven Places
6. Justin Timberlake
7. Paul Wright
8. Linkin Park
Tour Bus Essentials
So what does it take for Kutless to survive when they hit the touring circuit? Jon-Micah Sumrall gives us a list of the top-priority items.
1) A bus driver
“Our bus driver is pretty essential. The driver we have right now is great. He knows a lot about our bus and keeps it running well, as it has lots of little odds and ends to get things going smoothly.”
2) Video games
“We play skateboarding and pro-surfer games, ‘Tiger Woods’ golf, and our road pastor who comes out every once in while brought ‘Madden’ with him. So we have some pretty big football games between us – some real rivalries going on.”
“We have a lot of DVDs; and we’ve all been working on expanding our collections so that when we have a lot of long drives, we can just pop in a movie. I can’t read while we drive because I get car sick. On the other hand, for my wife, a good book is essential for all the long drives.”
4) Microwave burritos
“Microwave burritos are definitely a popular commodity. They are an instant meal!”
5) Other portable cuisine
We also like microwavable macaroni and cheese and sandwich stuff – turkey and cheese. And of course, we like to have the occasional Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fix.”
© 2004 CCM Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Click here to subscribe.