The 77'sLife is not fair. That is a hard truth that most of us have come to realize, even if we don't always accept it. If life were fair, The 77's--a long-time favorite of the critics--would be a major commercial success, their music listened to and appreciated by the masses--right up there with U2, REM, and other rock bands.
But life isn't fair, a fact that Mike Roe has had to come to accept. After propelling the Sacramento-based group through more than a decade of making creative, memorable albums--building a very loyal and zealous, but small following--Roe and company might finally be able to really expand their audience, with the release this month of Drowning With Land in Sight, on the Myrrh label.
What started out as a group that got together to help promote concerts at the Warehouse Church in Sacramento turned into one of the most formidable artistic talents in the business. With the release of Ping Pong Over the Abyss in the early '80s, on the Warehouse's own Exit record label, The 77's brought a new level of artistic integrity to what was becoming known as Contemporary Christian Music.
Guitarist/lead singer Roe, bassist Jan Eric Volz, keyboardist/guitarist Mark Tootle, and drummer Aaron Smith created an album that totally fit into the stream of popular music at that time. Lyrically, it set the tone for the future. The band has never backed away from discussing real life issues and problems, which perhaps has been part of the reason that they have never really been accepted by many Christians who prefer to pretend that everything in life is wonderful.
1984 brought their second album, All Fall Down, which only cemented the feeling that this group had unlimited potential and talent. When Exit records inked a distribution deal with Island Records, the company that brought U2 to the world, it seemed they were on the brink of finally having their music heard beyond what the limited promotion budget and experience their homegrown label was able to provide. But alas, their self-titled album, released in 1987, dropped out of sight.
The next few years were a long dry period for the 77's and their fans. A disagreement on the group's direction led to the dissolution of the band. Volz left for Nashville to pursue a career in artist management, and Tootle followed other interests. This left Roe and Smith at loose ends.
But the band just wouldn't die. In 1990, Roe released an album of demos and remixes titled Sticks and Stones, that became one of the group's most popular. He also put out a mostly solo effort, called 7 & 7 iS and, in 1991, a live album titled 88. Then, late in '91, came the word that he and Smith had teamed up with two other musicians, David Leonhardt (guitar) and Mark Harmon (bass), and that The 77's would be a musical entity once again.
Released in 1992, Pray Naked was their first real studio effort since the Island disappointment, and it served notice that The 77's had only improved with their hiatus. It also provided some controversy, as Word records, who was distributing the Brainstorm release, refused to distribute the album under that title, fearing a negative public reaction. Officially released as The Seventy Sevens, the band and their fans still refer to the record by its original title.
That album brought the most success that the band has ever seen, affording them the opportunity to tour outside of the West Coast, and expose more people to their melodic brand of pop and rock.
In 1992, Roe also began a musical relationship with three artists of similar stature in the rock/alternative music arena. Teaming up with Terry Taylor of DA, Derri Daugherty of The Choir, and Gene Eugene of Adam Again, the supergroup Lost Dogs was formed, becoming another outlet for his creativity.
But in the midst of reestablishing their musical identity, the members of The 77's had to deal with several major personal problems, the most significant being guitarist Leonhardt's battle with Hodgkin's disease. Diagnosed in the spring of 1993, he has undergone chemotherapy treatments. Happily, his prognosis is good.
This month brings the next studio offering from this seminal rock band. THE LIGHTHOUSE recently discussed the album and a few other topics with Roe.
So what's the story with the project?
Well, it's due out next month before we go out on a "big-time tour." We're anxiously looking forward to its release so we can play it on our home stereos.
You're going to be hitting most of the country with the tour?
Mostly east and north, northeast, and south, southeast.
East to you is what, Indiana?
Anything to the right of the Rocky Mountains.
That's what I thought. What can you tell me about the album?
It's a lot harder-edged. The previous album, Pray Naked, was two-thirds pop and one-third rock, whereas this kind of reverses that. We had so much success with the harder material on Pray Naked that we decided to tilt this album in that direction. We don't want people to think we've gone soft on them after all these years.
What is the title of the new album?
Drowning With Land in Sight. It would have made one of those nice haiku drawings, like Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch by Frank Zappa--it would have made a nice illustration like that.
What was the inspiration for the title?
That came from a friend of ours who was going through a terrible financial situation. There was a promise of him being bailed out by someone who was going to give him some money or a job or something, but it never came through--it kept being promised and it was right around the corner, and wouldn't happen. He said, 'I feel like I'm drowning with land in sight.' It was one of those 'I gotta use that one' titles, like Pray Naked. Some girl in an ice cream shop had it on a T-shirt. I went up to her and tried to get her to give me the shirt off her back. I walked away from that saying, 'I gotta use that one.' I wanted to call the album Subvert the Dominant Paradigm, which I saw on a bumper sticker. But everyone felt it was a little too complicated for Word Records. That was one of those where we'll have to wait. Maybe I'll write an instrumental...
Or use it for the Lost Dogs.
There you go. Yeah, Terry would get off on that.
What kind of topics?
The topics that were on Pray Naked go darker and deeper on this record. The characters that were in trouble on Pray Naked are now in absolute despair and anguish. [Laughter] It's kind of the logical next step. The music is more intense, the lyrics are more intense. It's probably the darkest, most intense album we've ever done--and we've done a lot of dark and intense records.
Are you a dark and intense person?
Well, I've had dark and intense periods, but I would not consider myself a dark person--an intense person, yes, but not dark. I would hate to think that any of my friends or the people that know me thought of me as dark. I've been in dark moods, but I would say that I'm pretty harmless, actually. I don't walk around all day wearing black, listening to The Cure--I think that's a popular image of me out there amongst the fans of this music. It's totally false. I'm basically a "sissy art-fag" that listens to jazz and classical.
You're not the tortured artist everyone makes you out to be?
No, I am a tortured artist, but not the kind that they make me out to be. No, it's true, I'm miserable and tortured, but not dark--there's a difference.
What keeps you from being dark?
I don't think my basic personality is suited to that. Ultimately, you can't be totally dark if God is part of your life. I mean, even though you may not take full advantage of His benefits and grace, it is there. Deep underneath there's a core of light, even though the surface is dark. There was a time when it was the opposite--I was much more happy and bubbly on the surface, but the core was dark. It's an interesting difference, you know, how you can have the surface be really up--I think a lot of people live like that. We all have our dark side, but your basic orientation... if you have the Lord down in there somewhere, I don't think your basic orientation, inwardly, can be dark, even though it seems like that. Sometimes we're the least accurate judges of what's really going on deep down. That's why we're not supposed to judge others or ourselves. I find myself doing both and it's always a bad thing. Only God knows the entire picture. So that's just one of those lessons that I've had to keep learning over and over again. I think this record reflects a time when I was most non-receptive to that reality. So, you see a lot of stubborn characters, a lot of people that have given up hope, on the album. It sort of mirrors some things that I and the band members were going through during either the writing or the making of the record, not the least of which was our guitar player, Dave's battle with Hodgkin's disease.
I was going to ask you how he was doing.
He's doing great, but his experience cast a dark pall over the entire year. When we were making the album it hit a zenith, a crescendo of despair and disgust. I was really depressed at the time, too, and the rest of the guys--we just drug them straight down. We ended up trying to record and just being really upset. I think it comes out in the performance--you can hear an angry, desperate, on-the-edge feeling on the record, even on the quiet songs. If nothing else, we got a good record that has a real vibe, a real life to it, because it was so dramatic. Our lives were so dramatic at the time, we couldn't have made anything but a dramatic record.
But he is doing better now?
Yeah, he's in remission, which means that the treatment worked. He still needs a lot of prayer because, for the next five years, they just don't know. He lives in morbid terror of it coming back--only because he doesn't want to go through chemo [therapy] again. I don't think he's as afraid to die from it as he is to go through chemo. I think he'd rather die than go through chemo again--which seems to be what I've heard from most cancer patients. It's a fate worse than death, it's awful. So, anyway, it was just one of those kinds of years, you know. We're looking towards a better year or two.
Who did the drumming for this album?
Is he a member, or is he sitting in?
He's really a member and has been for quite a while.
The last album seemed to be a little fuzzy...
That's true. It was not determined what was going to happen. He was considering other offers and other ways of life. We had to carry on with or without him. He's definitely made a much fuller commitment and interest in the group than ever before, probably in the entire time he's been with the group. That's exciting and has given us a lot more faith to go forward, because we would hate to play with anyone other than Aaron because he's so much a part of the group. He's a major factor in the sound.
Now that Lost Dogs is going, does that affect your songwriting?
I get asked that question a lot. Oddly enough, no, it doesn't affect that. The Lost Dogs projects are done very last-minute and rather than prepare for them, I tend to scrape around and find songs that were unfinished that I had or ideas that could be quickly executed, or written for The 77's projects, maybe years and years ago, that never got used or didn't fit. Or there was a half-written song that I wanted to get around to that everyone was excited about because they liked the title--like "Jesus Loves You Brian Wilson." That was a popular title and topic for a long time--"Yeah, I'm going to finish that, I'm going to write this"--everyone was excited to hear the song, but I just never bothered to finish it. So when the Dogs project comes around, I go "You know, that's perfect--Terry really likes the Beach Boys, we could probably knock this off."
More and more, the Seventy-Sevens material is collaborative, anyway. In the old days, I would write one and Mark Tootle would write one and occasionally we'd work together, but it was mostly a separate thing. Whereas now, about eighty percent of it is written starting with one of the other guys and I finish up the melody and lyrics. Usually they will come up with a musical track--with hooks and guitar line, and so on--and I superimpose a melody and lyrics over that, and I also do the arrangements. It kind of works out. Once we start working on the song, everyone starts putting in more ideas, so we credit the whole band. Now I'll only write one or two songs per album by myself. It tends to be a lot more of a democracy thing.
How do you think your audience has changed over the years?
A lot of our fans have now grown up and have kids that like our music. It's just wonderful to have that cutting edge image and still be perceived as "artists" and "cool," rather than boring old farts that can't come up with a new idea. I've been grateful for that because it's kept us fresh, rather than feeling that we have one audience that wants one thing (not that we'd ever pander to them!) It helps us to stay creative with our approach rather than settling in some kind of format, which we were never good at.
The rigmarole with the title of the last album--have you experienced more trouble being under Word, or how have you come out of that?
Let's just say this current album was more under the control of Word Records than ourselves. In the past, we've been in complete charge of our albums but we conceded on this project to allow the record company to be in charge. We both worked together for mutual goals for one project only. It's been very different from how we usually do things. Usually we're in total charge of the lyrics, music, artwork, and everything--we just turn the record in on a plate and it's our own expression. I would say this record was a collaboration with the record company, so it doesn't represent The 77's totally. It represents The 77's and Word Records doing art together. It'll be a very different album from what we usually do because of that.
Was that hard to deal with?
And--I take it you didn't like it much?
Well, the thing is, I think that working that way does contradict the art spirit, in that it's more art by committee rather than art by artist. By its very nature it's more of a community effort. It's the difference between an artist in his gallery doing a piece of work that's his own expression versus a community-commissioned mural for public display, in which the community has direct input into what they want on that wall, and the taxpayers and government are all involved... the artist may have his own ideas about what he would put on the wall. In that kind of project, you're dealing with the opinions of the townspeople, the government, various other lobbyists and special interests.
So, the art is not going to be the pure expression of the artist. It, rather, is some of that, along with how it's steered and directed by all these other factors. So, for me, that's a diplomatic way of saying it's a very different experience from an artist working alone--literally collaborating with other people who may not know what he's trying to do or aren't as sensitive to certain aspects of it as he is. It fundamentally changes it. So we'll let the fans decide. Ultimately, it's up to the people who are buying it whether they like it done this way or not. This was just an experiment--something we've never done before. It's not as much fun to work by committee--let's put it that way. Too many cooks spoil the soup, in my opinion. There's art and there's commerce, and often times the two can be bitter bedfellows, particularly in the market we're working in, which is by its very nature a non-artistic venture.
I think part of the problem is that there's a confusion about who this music is for and what the function is. I think, originally, gospel music was quite appropriate and functional for its marketplace. Once it became what is known as "CCM," it created a lot of confusion, because then, what does that mean? Entertainment for Christians? Evangelism? Something in between, or neither one, pretending to be both? In my opinion, it's more the latter most of the time. This makes it difficult for someone who's a serious artist trying to create a work of power and potency, because you have several gatekeepers saying, "The Church isn't ready for that kind of potency." To which we point to the Bible saying, "What about Jeremiah, naked on the city wall?" "Well, that was then." "Well, what about the prophet that married a whore, ordered by God to do so?" "Well, that's God. We do things differently." "But aren't we representing God?" "We won't sell enough records," and on and on and on. There's a lot of strange mixed motives and messages in this industry that inhibit the artistic process.
Where would you put your music on that line, as far as entertainment for Christians/non-Christians?
I think, ideally, a good work of art should do all those things. It should entertain, it should challenge, it should provoke--it should change your life. Even if it changes your life by making you really happy each time you experience the work, that is a life-changing work, because how many things in this world can really make you that happy that many times? I think art has a tremendous restorative and healing capacity, because it's touching areas that aren't touched by normal conversation.
Music, especially, is not only a verbal but an auditory, tactile experience--you feel it with your body. If it's a record, you're handling it, you're looking at the pictures. It's a touchy/feely thing. I'd say that when we're doing our job, it does everything well. It "ministers," if you will; it serves, (which is the same thing). It can touch you; it can make you angry or sad or exultant. It can make you feel caught up to the heavens or tied up very firmly to the earth, or both. It will ultimately make you aware that you're more alive--that you are a human being, and that God is in heaven and here with you, ready to deal. It should put everything in its proper perspective. Not any one song does that, but I think the whole experience should do that.
That's why I've always felt, (in spite of growing out of it to a certain extent), that rock and roll is a very good medium for this because it doesn't--it shouldn't--discriminate. It pulls in influences from just about every place and it's a very immediate form of art. In other words, if something's going to happen with it, it's going to happen right now, the minute it comes on and you hear it. You don't have to sit and ponder it, you just feel it. That's what it's appeal was originally, and I think that's still what the appeal is. We've tried to maintain an immediate impact on our listeners; a true rock and roll experience rather than a pseudo-one, or one that's lost the basic roots of the music. We've tried to keep the roots pure as much as possible, while experimenting with other things. I would hope that makes us what I would consider an authentic rock and roll band. I find there are a lot of pretenders, a lot of contenders, but not too many people I would consider authentic in the tradition--there have only been a handful of those over the years.
I wouldn't compare us with the greatest ones. I would just hope that we are trying to be at least as authentic as they were. I don't know how great we are. Like I say, time tells, and so does your public. I don't sit back and think "We're really great" right now. Most of the stuff gets my back up--I feel like there's always something we didn't do right or was too derivative or wasn't as good as it should have been. I tend to be critical of what we're doing.
Are you getting more exposure now?
It seems that way. Nothing's been lost through inertia. If we've ever stood still, we've held on to all that we started with. It kind of grows on it's own a little bit, with every record you put out. If nothing, we've held our own.
I would imagine that's encouraging.
Sure, because the life span of most rock and roll groups, even popular ones--you could be the next big thing and then in a year or two take a swan dive. For some reason people have continued to like this thing, and that's what's kept it together, because we've thought about stopping many, many times. It's never been cost effective, it's wrecked all our lives, and it's gotten to the point where we were thinking "this is a complete waste of time, why are we doing this?" When all of a sudden there's this large outpouring of response from people saying "This is really important," "This changed my life," or "When's the next album? I can't wait." It's almost like something we can't refuse, in a way.
No matter how hard it gets, there's something about it compelling us to go forward with it, even though it makes no sense. It really is a miracle that the group exists at all, or ever existed, because we've never had proper management, proper publicity, or proper anything, (the last two records were recorded in a bedroom or a sewing room on substandard equipment that would be considered primitive by any professional standards) and with virtually no promotion, there's still this big deal thing going on around it. I don't know. I'm grateful, because it makes me feel like I've got something to do. It's important to somebody. So, we just keep doing it. We're all still trying to have careers on our own and keep body and soul together, but it doesn't seem to be working, it's just the band sucking our life out of us. [Laughter] But, the main thing is that if we felt the music was going in a stale direction, we wouldn't have kept on anywhere near as long. It's the fact that we still keep getting ideas that are worthwhile to pursue-- as long as that happens and we find a way to survive somehow, we'll probably keep going for a while.
Was there anything you wanted to say about the album or life in general?
No. I'm trying not to comment on life in general these days. It's a rough period and I'm very "up" right now, so I'm trying to keep it positive. I went through a very dark period and finishing the album sort of closed that chapter. Christmas came and went and for some reason, this year seems to be going better, so I'm trying to stay real upbeat. We've got a lot of big plans and good projects coming up. I would say that life looks like it's going to get better, but who knows? It could get worse! It's one of those things--you just deal with it.
--Beth Blinn and J. Warner Soditus
Article originally appeared in THE LIGHTHOUSE April, 1994