Return of the Living Dead
by Brian Quincy Newcomb
February 1998, CCM Magazine
by Brian Quincy Newcomb
We started out as a fluke, really," admits guitarist/ keyboard player Bob Herdman of Audio Adrenaline. "We weren't really a band."
That's a startling confession from a member of a group that in past years was tapped to fill 150-180 opening slots on big-time tours with artists such as Newsboys, dc Talk and Steven Curtis Chapman.
"We've been a professional opening band," says Herdman. "We've had to learn as we go -- how to be professional musicians, professional songwriters and how to put on a great show."
But not anymore. Audio A launches its first headline tour this spring, supporting its latest release, Some Kind of Zombie. The tap-ees become the tappers, selecting ska band The O.C. Supertones and new singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp to warm up the concert crowds.
Good things come to those who wait.
But such accolades don't represent what first motivated the men of AA to join together.
"When we first started the band, the goal was ministry first, music second," says Herdman, describing the evolution of the Kentucky Bible College friends into this youth-ministry-disguised-as-a-rock-band.
"We put on a killer show, so when we say music is second, it's not that we don't take it seriously. But we take ministry more seriously. Our number one goal is to spread the gospel. I think people see our joy and happiness as we're up there having a good time. We want them to know where we get that from, and that is Jesus Christ."
Audio Adrenaline released its self-titled debut in 1992, and was quickly bashing sales records. "I attribute a lot of our success to God," explains bassist Will McGinniss. "Maybe it's because we're just good ol' boys from Kentucky, and we are very down to earth. Our hearts' passion is for people to know that we're Christian guys, and that our message is sincerely about God. We feel it's our goal to let kids know that Christians aren't boring, and that rock 'n' roll is not sinful and 'of the devil.' Once the kids started to change, the adults really started to get behind it."
When those adults are influential youth pastors, audiences and record sales tend to grow exponentially, a fact not wasted on groundbreaking veteran band Petra. This grassroots support has been part of AA's appeal from the very beginning, says Pastor Jim Burgen, youth minister for 14 years and long-time friend of the band.
"I think they have a heart for youth ministry," affirms Burgen. "They came through the Bible college system, they came up through youth ministries and cut their teeth playing for church youth groups. When you sit down and talk with them, they are so unimpressed with themselves. If this all ended tomorrow, I know they'd say that God must have something else for them."
So impressed was Burgen by AA's concern for youth and its desire to support the efforts of pastors, he eagerly participated in a recent video and book project with the band: Some Kind of Journey: On the Road with Audio Adrenaline. It's a concept that combines MTV's "Real World" with "Road Rules" yet allowed Burgen and the band to interact for seven days with seven Christian kids around relevant issues like struggling through pain, marriage and sexuality, and life in the church.
"The goal I had for the book," says singer Mark Stuart, "was to give kids a chance to deal with some issues. They may have lived a sheltered life, may have been in a candy-coated environment, been in church and haven't had to deal with the real world."
"What I really wanted to do was make a tool for youth pastors to use," suggests Herdman. "I think the coolest thing is going to be the video piece [scheduled to be released in the spring]. The youth minister will have this 15-minute clip that's very entertaining and funny, but it'll have a lot of depth and talk about a lot of things that you might not normally talk about in a youth group. Hopefully, it'll be a real discussion starter."
"We wanted to gain a great insight into the youth of today," adds McGinniss. "We wanted the youth pastors to have a great tool, but something that's real, something that's new and different, something that kids could relate to that was their generation. The kids debated among themselves, and sometimes there's no clear-cut Christian answer given. Each person will have to come to their own conclusion."
Of course, that is easier said than done at times, says Stuart. "I was surprised by the frankness, the almost brutal honesty that the kids had in the very first conversation. I think that' s just a representation of where kids are at these days. They crave sincerity. One guy was totally questioning his faith, teetering on atheism. One of the girls couldn't hold a conversation without dropping the f-word. We began to worry about the church accepting the book, but I think Standard Publishing did it in good taste and got the point across."
"On the issue of absolutes, I heard some comments that surprised me. I think there are a lot of Christian young people who are lured into the philosophy of tolerance. I believe it's wrong to be tolerant of another religion when you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven. I do believe that the church has a problem with bigotry within its own body, and that's where I think we need to be more tolerant. When you meet someone of another religion, you can totally accept them and love them but not their religion as an alternative to Christianity. The problem is when we become so tolerant of things that have become hip as social issues that we forget our standards."
"I'm probably the typical Christian that people think of," adds Herdman. "I'm pretty dogmatic. I thought some of the kids were a little out there, almost New Age, real accepting and tolerant. Tolerance is fine, but I stick to what I believe in. When people think of Christians as intolerant, I think of it as just sticking to my convictions."
Although Stuart admits he gained some sensitivity on the issue of racism and struggles with pain in life, he's aware that, "The whole premise of the thing was to hear different arguments from different sides of an issue. Those were the ground rules we laid down in the beginning. There were times when things got so heated that people left the room. We let them know we wanted to hear their opinions, and that no one would be judged as wrong or right. But, of course, I'm always trying to convince people that I'm right."
Though everyone involved agreed the trip was a positive experience, the strain of trying to both minister in the moment and accomplish a goal (i.e. complete a book and video project) produced a tension of its own. Take, for example, the group's journey to visit a homeless ministry beneath a Chicago bridge: "I really didn't want to be there," wrote Herdman. "I felt like we were using those people, like we were taking advantage of their being homeless."
The band, however, feels inspired by recent challenges, like the amiable exit of former guitarist Barry Blair. "Mark and Will and I would just sit around with guitars and write," says Herdman, "and I think we focused more on the songs and melodies. With Barry we always had these great guitar licks, so we had to step forward and put more of ourselves into the writing. I'm not very artistic, though I like to entertain people, make them happy and give them what they want."
Says McGinniss, "With this new album, it's a plain old rock band, influenced by the things that we grew up listening to: largely '70s groove music and classic rock 'n' roll. We're not afraid to experiment with anything, as far as technology goes. We think the lyrics and music are deeper and more mature."
"It's hard to classify Audio Adrenaline music," suggests drummer Ben Cissell who, with new guitarist Tyler Burkum, rounds out the new line-up. "I don't think that any one of us would say that the music we make together is our favorite style of music. Since all of our influences come together, that's what makes it so different. That's what makes us like it because it pulls a little bit from everything."
Yet Zombie does represent a musical and lyrical shift, says Stuart. "Each record usually has a different theme. On Don't Censor Me we were just a bunch of kids, young, rowdy and telling the world you can't hold back the message of Christ. Bloom, ironically, was about Audio Adrenaline; it's a very introspective record. I think Zombie is not as introverted as Bloom. It's more of a spiritual journey, about change in our life and dealing with hidden sin and what Romans says about being dead to sin and alive to Christ. The whole record seems to be about a journey or transition.
"'Zombie' is where it starts and 'New Body' is where it ends up. Me? I'm kind of wallowing around in the tide needing a 'Lighthouse.' That's probably where most of us are. We tried to make it musically, lyrically and spiritually a little more intriguing than our other records. It's definitely more of an overview of what it is that we go through as Christians."
And yes, as Audio Adrenaline gears up for its headline tour, they're contemplating the meaning and value of music ministry after years of playing second fiddle to the vision of others.
"We're really feeling that responsibility," acknowledges Stuart, "and we're not taking it lightly. We want people to feel like they got their money's worth musically and entertainment-wise. I really want people to be moved by the music. Second, we feel powerfully motivated to give them something eternal to take home with them. We're really going back to the old school, Christian rock mentality where you really share a lot of your heart. Will's going to share his testimony, even though there aren't a lot of bands currently doing that sort of thing. Will's one of the best communicators of his testimony, not that one testimony is better than others, but his is real entertaining, and kids really listen to him. We're looking forward to this opportunity."
"Always, the ministry was the most important thing, " he says of his seven years with AA. "We always agreed from the beginning that we wanted to use this opportunity to reach kids, whatever that meant. That was probably the prevailing factor that kept us together, and I'm sure it keeps them together still.
"My feelings that it was time to move on kind of built up over a year," he says. "I got the opportunity to produce the first Bleach record, and I really enjoyed doing that. More and more, I got interested in outside things."
Blair first stepped out of Audio Adrenaline to play lead guitar with dc Talk when they opened on the "Free at Last" tour. Recently he's worked with Shaded Red and is producing the new Bleach record.
"I think most people see AA as real guys who are out there to serve God," he says, "and to have an impact on the youth culture or today. That's the reputation that follows the band, and to me that's mroe important than any musical critique."