Founded upon rock
77s, Michael Roe transcend the Christian category
By Mark Brown, News Popular Music Critic
You could label Michael Roe's work, both solo and with the 77s, as Christian rock. You'd be right, and you'd be so, so wrong.
"If you were to say, `Listen to this Christian rock record,' immediately this oozy slime is on the floor. The colors of the room turn pink and cream, sugar is dripping off the walls, the furniture is plastic," Roe says. "You change the whole atmosphere of the room with a few words like that. And the last thing you want to do that to is a kick-ass rock 'n' roll record."
Roe's writing isn't the syrupy, sanitized stuff you'd imagine, given his strong faith. Like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Paul Westerberg and Denver's own 16 Horsepower, Roe's lyrics are searching for answers -- and he realizes that sometimes the answers lie in secular darkness rather than in some phony, rosy light. Certainly, Roe's music is searching and spiritual, but this is not what you'd stereotype as Christian rock, church music or, God forbid, wimpy. If you love U2's The Joshua Tree, you'd love the 77s.
"We don't fit into any corporate structure whatsoever. Our music is essentially American music," Roe says. "It no more belongs in a church than in an alleyway. It belongs to anyone who digs it. The problem is, when you go to sell this art, it has to get past certain gatekeepers, whether it's the bigwig guys in the record companies in Hollywood or the little old ladies who sell your product next to plastic Jesuses in Christian bookstores. It doesn't matter if you worship the devil or Christ. If you don't sell records, you're through."
Indeed, the band covered songs as diverse as the Velvet Underground's Jesus to Led Zeppelin's Nobody's Fault but Mine, hardly the standard Michael W. Smith or Steve Curtis Chapman territory.
"Even George Harrison -- one would be hard-pressed to label his stuff `Krishna pop,' " Roe says with a laugh. "There's just something about Christianity that people love to attack. It tends to smack of something derivative, pasty, non-edgy."
These days, however, overtly Christian bands such as Jars of Clay and DC Talk get legitimate radio hits; perhaps, Roe reasons, some of the stigma has melted away. In any event, it doesn't stop him from being vocal about his faith -- and his lack of faith, his doubts, his fear. (Roe plays a rare Denver show at the Soiled Dove on Sunday night, solo acoustic and taking requests.)
But during the time of major-label releases All Fall Down and The 77s in the mid-'80s, Roe downplayed the band's Christianity. It wasn't hard; if you didn't know the members were Christians, the edgy but melodic rock of The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life or Pearls Before Swine would hardly tip you off.
"We were really deliberate about not wanting to be labeled that way. We were courting major labels. And the minute you're called a `Christian' band, it becomes a cartoon," Roe says. "We felt our music and art were legitimate and didn't want to ghetto-ize it in any way. That limits your throw. We wanted to have the widest throw possible."
Despite some airplay and success, the 77s and Roe have remained underground artists.
"The only people we seem to have the ears of are people who have a sense of us being very honest and doing what we want to do," Roe says. "Our one message has been to be the person God made you to be. Don't conform ... to what your parents wanted, what society wanted, what your girlfriend wants or what the record company wants. Be who you are, and money and love will follow."
It's a credo he's lived by.
"If I were to quit music now, I'd end up at McDonald's," Roe says, tongue only partly in cheek. "Musically I have tried to sell out many times. I've offered myself to Christian record companies. I've showed up in suits. ... I've offered to call the album Mike Repents. I'll do anything they want. But they won't let me in. They know full well I'll try to find a way to pervert it or turn it inside out."
By refusing to betray his instincts, Roe and his band mates continue to eke out a living.
"One thing that has changed everything for the better for us is the Internet," Roe says. Pre-Internet, it took mailing lists, bulk mail, hired representatives and more to set up even a modest cross-country tour. "Now I can just think a dumb thought, type it in and presto -- instant communication with the entire world."
While many of Roe's best songs have absolutely no Christian references, in recent years he's written some pointedly spiritual songs. The opening lines of The Boat Ashore literally has Roe stumbling over his Bible in his haste to do other things.
"That song was an average day of my life. I was literally more excited about getting to my phone and listening to my voice messages than in hearing from God himself," Roe says. "We're so caught up in mundane activities. Here I am stumbling over the book that is sealed in blood, the book that people died for."
The new 77s album that Roe is in the middle of mixing does stray from that, with lighter content, he says.
"I'm personally afraid to dig that deep in myself in the past few years," Roe says. "There are periods in your life where you're afraid to be honest or go there. I've been going through this weird passage in the middle of my life where my thoughts and feelings scare me." Some of the deeper struggles of my life, I've not allowed myself to express them in song like I used to."
Still, it's something he knows he'll get back to. Roe's music hits fans where they live; he knows there's something happening there that is simply inexplicable.
"God has something to do with this music we make becoming more than that," he says. "The space in between what we're doing and what people are hearing is where the magic takes place. Music is a language that works far deeper than speech and syntax. It gets right into areas of your heart that you don't even understand."
Fans can expect a 77s album in two months, another Lost Dogs side project, a blues project with Phil Madera, a summer tour, a solo album in the fall, then another 77s album.
"I've sort of come out of semiretirement," Roe says. "I was spinning my wheels, had a lot of personal problems and issues that obstructed my vision. I have to get my eyes off the struggle and onto the magic again."
"I suppose I've taken it for granted until recently," he says. "I've met people in high positions, wealthy, privileged people, who say, `I would give all my wealth and more to do what you do.' I've heard that so many times now I have to stop and think about the fact that even though I don't have personal comfort and worldly riches, I am able to do what I love and be creative for a living, meager though it is, and nothing else. By the grace of God."
Contact Mark Brown at (303) 892-2674 or brownm@RockyMountainNews.com.
İFebruary 2, 2001 Denver Rocky Mountain News--all rights reserved