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Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Rez Band

Quincy Smith-Newcomb

Glenn Kaiser doesn't look at all like his old self. He no longer resembles the familiar rock ‘n’ roller, revivalist preacher and leader of Resurrection Band. In the first place, he’s knocked 45 pounds off his stout frame and cut his fair from hippie long to punk short, with a dyed blond tuft in front. Sitting on a bench and catching his breath, in baggy running shorts and high-top sneakers, sweating still from a bout of alleyway soccer, Kaiser now looks pretty much like a regular guy.

As regular folk go, members of Resurrection Band – Jim Denton, Stu Heiss, John Herrin, Wendi and Glenn Kaiser – have made quite a name for themselves in Christian music. One of the first Christian bands to venture fully into heavy metal, Rez Band has produced five successful studio albums and one hot live record. The band also draws sizable concert audience from coast to coast and abroad. But the successful sale of albums, concert tickets, and Rez Band paraphernalia barely scratches the surface of this band’s intentions.

JPUSA

The most important factor in the lives and ministry of Resurrection Band has little to do with guitars, albums, or rock ‘n’ roll. At times, these things are viewed as hindrances to be avoided. The key element in the Rez Band matrix is life at home in Jesus People USA on Chicago’s North Side.

JPUSA is a full-fledged Jesus commune that houses over 350 people. The community took root in Chicago’s inner-city Uptown neighborhood over ten years ago, after leaving Milwaukee via Florida. Noting the absence of any visible evangelical urban ministries, the Christian communers felt a kinship and calling to Chicago’s street people. This dynamic environment, while providing fodder for Kaiser’s deeply emotional lyrics, explains the intensity, urgency, and appeal for Rez Band’s music.

JPUSA is much more than the home of Resurrection Band members. The community maintains a feeding program that provides a hot meal for 200 street people daily and visitation ministries to prisons, hospitals, and homes for the aging and handicapped. There is an alternative school for the community's 125 children, and members run a regular schedule of night classes in discipleship, Bible study, cults, and witnessing.

One might be tempted to consider Resurrection Band apart from these surroundings by studying the group’s vinyl confessions or tour memorabilia. However, the street community best explains the distinct, substantive, musical identity that Rez Band has attained in Christina music.

Life in the community, with its responsibilities and joys, often supercedes the activities of the band. Like most bands, Rez Band spends some time on the road. Stu Heiss expresses a common belief for the band to whom recording came as an afterthought: “The really important things is to get out there and minister the gospel.”

Yet, the band kept its number of concerts down to 80 last year, and now flies to most concerts to avoid on-the-road burn out to minimize times away from families. Kaiser explains the tension, “We’re more concerned about out relationships to the Lord and within our families, than we are our ministry in the band. I mean, first things first.”

This kind of priority has profound implications on the way life is lived at JPUSA and the way music is played in Resurrection Band. “It’s not music full time for us,” notes Kaiser matter-of-factly. “When we get home form a tour, we pack up our instruments until the next time we need to get ready for a tour or learn songs for the next album. Sometimes that may be a month. We don’t eat, sleep, breathe, and dream music.

“We’re probably the most unlikely group of people that could be brought together in a rock ’n’ roll band,” Kaiser continues. “I bet you could spend a whole day with each of us, doing what we do around here, and never suspect that we were in a band.”

Indeed, one could do just that. Kaiser explains, “When we’re home, we’re moms and dads, pastors, and workers. We’re busy maintaining the ministry here that is our life.”

Conversations with band members about their past, present, and future never diverge far from the tasks at hand in JPUSA. Bassist Jim Denton and Heiss function in JPUSA’s polity as deacons. Denton is also involved in the community’s rehabilitation efforts, and wife Jeanne coordinates and performs in the Holy Ghost Players, a comedy troupe outreach.

Heiss, Rez’s primary lead guitar player, spends most of his spare moments computerizing the subscriptions of the ministry’s magazine, Cornerstone, and the accounts of the Jesus People business. He comments on his dual role: “I have more trouble relating to the rock ‘n’ roll identity that I do being a part of JPUSA. This is who I am more than Rez Band. The band isn’t something we do a majority of the time. It’s something we do in spurts, now and then. Most of the time I do other things.”

The “other things” for Heiss and most of the band often take precedence over their efforts as musicians. With such tight schedules, the only opportunities to practice and refine musical skills come during concerts, while recording, and on days set aside for pre-tour/pre-recording practices. Denton sees it as “a balanced life. There are slow times and fast times, times here and times away. It’s not just music. It’s everything. It’s life.”

Kaiser’s wife Wendi affirms that “the community is the lifeblood of Resurrection Band. It’s where we receive instruction, correction, and edification. It’s the water under the boat of our ministry.”

Wendi’s husband Glenn and brother John Herrin have responsibilities as elders. They meet with seven men and Dawn Herrin, Wendi’s mother and Cornerstone’s Editor-in-Chief, to make decisions affecting JPUSA’s life and future. Glenn acts as principle pastor and teacher in the community, and John Herrin oversees the Jesus People business with an eye on financial expenditures and involvement’s.

Herrin still sports a long ponytail (“Every Jesus commune needs at least on hippie”). He’s an outspoken advocate of community life. “My life’s been so unboring,” he says, smiling at his understatement. “I love living with people. I feel privileged to raise my children with a Christian community. I think we’re giving them something that we weren’t given. It’s been so wonderful to share out lives so closely with people.” He gives the community credit for keeping Rez Band on the edge. “An important part of our effectiveness is the fact that we live together with people.”

Sound of Music

With all this activity going on, one wonders how the group finds time to play in the Resurrection Band. Glenn Kaiser, the band’s main creative force, sees the music as important; he’s just careful to keep it in perspective. “Music is a powerful vehicle that we fully appreciate. It is very much part of who we are. I don’t think we’re faking anything up there on stage. It’s a matter of priorities. It we’re not careful, the tail will wag the dog.”

Some might view Rez Band’s approach to music as utilitarian, as well as lacking in artistic value, due to the band’s apparently weak commitment to music performance. However, there’s a strong case in favor of artistic integrity in the quality of the albums alone. One surely recognizes the strong poetic quality of Kaiser’s lyrics. There’s also the high level of energy that Rez Band pours into live performance - a level that groups which play more often sometimes don’t deliver.

But, in the final analysis, Resurrection Band would probably agree with critics. For this band music is secondary – a tool, a mean of getting people who never go to church, but who would check out a rock ‘n’ roll band, to hear the gospel.

Wendi Kaiser explains: “What we want to share, both with Christians and non-Christians, is that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life. When Christ is held in the center of your life, all the other things will be in the right order. If music died for us tomorrow, we would still be ministers. Another door of service and evangelism would open up.”

With its “balanced evangelistic outreach,” Rez Band seeks to reach the troubled youths who are so much like members themselves ten to fifteen years ago. Glenn Kaiser believes that music is one of the best ways. “It’s the one thing in the culture that is for them. Musicians are the prophets of the day, and we want to be there for kids who aren’t finding direction elsewhere.”

Reflecting on the band’s integrity, John Herrin says, “We have a responsibility as Christian musicians to try to be good and current. We don’t want to put out sloppy music. But if we’re not careful, we can get caught in the same trap as our secular counterparts in trying to get to the top.”

In attempting to stay relevant, Resurrection Band has begun to supplement its basic heavy metal approach with some new wave and synthetic techno-pop. “We don’t want to go schizophrenic on everybody,” states Herrin. “We don’t want to forsake our rock ‘n’ roll following, because we don’t see many Christians out there making heavy metal. On the other hand, we’re really influenced by all the weird new music. W can’t help but want to experiment a bit.”

Kaiser, who names Peter Gabriel and Judas Priest as contemporary musical influences, states that “as long as there is heavy metal, we’ll still be playing it. But at the same time, we’re open to the new music. We’re trying to be real get-down-‘n’-break-glass, 1984 heavy metal – and real strong synthesized, drum machine music, even without guitars. I’m thinking of a raw, Flock of Seagulls sound.”

Drawing an unlikely parallel, Kaiser continues, “Like the Rolling Stones – who grow and change with each release, yet hold on to that distinctive Stones sound – Rez Band wants to develop and keep growing. We don’t want to dig ourselves into a musical ditch to please certain die-hards who only appreciate one musical style.”

To aid in Rez Band’s growth and development, the group recently moved to a new label and built its own recording studio. Sparrow Records picked up the live record and expects at least two studio releases. “There is an excitement about the Resurrection Band that is truly unique, and we are looking forward to the added dimension that they will provide to Sparrow’s diverse musical catalog,” says Billy Ray Hearn, president of Sparrow Records. “Their commitment to their music and the young people they seek to reach with that music and its powerful message is an example to all of us who have dedicated our lives to spreading the Word of God in song.”

Marching On

Originally, the community was quite homogenous, as most of the founders were recent converts from the counterculture. Today, with over seven times as many people involved, members are more sophisticated and heterogeneous. “We have a broader variety of people,” says Herrin, “than we’ve ever had before.” There are now several people with scholastic doctorates and a medical doctor. In addition, the community is putting another member through law school who will handle the community’s legal concerns.

JPUSA maintains a number of businesses – roofing, painting, construction, pest control, moving – which provide over 90 percent of its income. Rez Band, Herrin adds, “has been able to help some financially, but not a lot. Touring by plane the way we do really eats up the revenue.” The community works hard to avoid financial dependence. “We’ve believed from the very beginning that we should try to support ourselves. We’re probably one of a few Christian organizations of this size, with this much outreach going on, that receives such a small amount of our funding from donations.”

Tone Zone, the band’s studio, was partially complete when Rez Band recorded its last studio record, DMZ. Since then, the inside of the building has been scrapped. A giant steel beam, some truly heavy metal, has been placed to support the roof and back wall on the three-story building.

So, members have started all over again. This time using state-of-the-art design, they are developing a studio with rock music in mind. Due to be completed by late spring – in time to record its next studio record, tentatively titled 1984 - Rez Band is enthusiastic about the possibilities such a studio will create. “We’ll make better albums than we ever have before,” states Kaiser. “We’ll have more time to get our performances down on tape. And we won’t have to pay astronomical prices to work on production and mix down.”

Not only will the Tone Zone improve Resurrection Band’s efforts, but there’s talk of a comedy album akin to Firesign Theatre from the Holy Ghost Players and a record by Grace & Glory, a soulful mixed gospel chorus out of JPUSA. Such a studio would also give Rez Band the opportunity to aid, encourage, and even produce records for other Christian bands, or stretch out in some solo endeavors.

But that is all down the line. Right now, there is a good bit of excitement over Rez Band’s first live album, Bootleg recorded, of course, in Chicago. Harvest Rock went all-out with JPUSA to promote Resurrection Band for the two nights of recording. Paul Emery, head of Harvest, said that “the first night the band seemed a little tight, with recording and all. The second night they just blew the house down. We went to special ends, flying the lights and sound above the stage. It was the best show we’ve ever done. Glenn was just incredible the second night – really anointed.”

Using Full Sail’s mobile recording unit, Rez Band captured a strong, honest, high-energy sound. There are three new songs, a medley of older material from the first and third LPs, and an even split between metal and new music – all in spirited performances for a sure-fire winner. Bootleg certainly expresses Kaiser’s philosophy that “the last kind of concert that should be called Christian is when you get bored. I go to concerts looking for energy, power, joy, freedom, and excitement.”

More and more, the audiences at Resurrection Band concerts come toward the stage to dance while the band plays. At first taken aback, Wendi now says, “I take it as a compliment. It proves that they’re with us, that they’re participating in the event. Those same kids that are dancing are there praying when we get done presenting the gospel. What are you going to say?”

This summer JPUSA will act on Herrin’s vision for a “Greenbelt quality festival to be held in the Midwest.” Billed as “More Rock ‘n’ Roll Than Anyone Has Dared Before,” the concert will feature many of the top names in Christian rock, with a priority on quality sound, lighting, and exposure.

Cornerstone ’84 will give the big names the main stage at night. A side stage will give afternoon exposure to the fledging rock and new music artists who normally might not make the bill at festivals aimed at family audiences. Three-day seminars will run mornings and afternoons, stressing what JPUSA’s Henry Wong called “the same kind of substantive approach to Christian discipleship that we present in Cornerstone.” If all goes as Herring and Wong hope, Cornerstone ’84 could be the Christian rock event of the year.

Gospel Power

Life at JPUSA looks to continue in its second decade much the same as in its first. The converted hotel with “Friendly Towers” inscribed in the awning, 4707 North Malden, will continue as the home of “those Jesus freaks who give away all that food.”

JPUSA will still offer a roof and a home to those in need. The Jesus People will still answer the phone, “Jesus loves you.” The lobby will at times explode into mayhem. And the big, brown dog that you inevitably have to step over to reach the desk will still be there in the way. From time to time, Christian journalists, expecting to visit the homes of rock stars, will end up hanging out with some pretty neat, regular folk.

Glenn Kaiser sat outside, looking pretty much like a regular guy. Tired from soccer, he sat watching three of his four children, with some other children form the community, getting incredibly dirty on the ground.

A little boy from the neighborhood, maybe six years old, at least part Native American, approached him. “Hey mister, you wanna play ball?” The skeptic in me expected the rock star to say no. After all, he was tired.

As I watched the man and the boy dribble the soccer ball down the alley toward the makeshift goal, I felt an awesome sense of the gospel’s power of love.

 
 
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