Steve Taylor is a musician, a record producer, and a filmmaker. Over the years he's courted controversy with songs like "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" and "I Manipulate" — songs that criticize Christian culture from within. He’s also produced great records for The Newsboys, Sixpence None The Richer, Chevelle, and more. He’s the writer director of Second Chance and Blue Like Jazz, and recently returned to making music after a twenty year hiatus.
On our show, we talk about his journey as an artist, about the controversies he weathered, about the kickstarter that funded Blue Like Jazz, and much, much more.
Mike Cosper: Hey Cultivated listeners, we're back. On the first episode of our new season, we're sitting down with one of my favorite artists, Steve Taylor.
Steve Taylor: My barber in Boulder was always asking me about what was going on and you know I was interested in what I was doing and I told them I'd been recording some songs so he said sounds interesting. I got a friend you know just moved out here from L.A. It was a big deal music business, can I play him a tape? Yeah. So, I gave him the tape. He gave it to his friend. His friend was like this is really good. (I think he'd been ahead of like Warner Brothers Publishing or something.) So he set up these meetings for me to go out to L.A. and meet with like Arista and Warner Brothers and different labels like that. So I took the tape out, had the meetings, and their reaction was almost...and I think all three meetings was almost always the same it's like "This music is interesting." You know it's like a kind of a punk, new wave hybrid that sounded good sound and fresh but they said with these lyrics they're like kind of Christian but kind of satirical, like, we like your music. But I think your lyrics would offend our audience. So I thought well if it's the Christian content and I just need to go talk to some Christian labels and I played it for Word, Sparrow, and another one. And their reaction was we don't like your music and your lyrics would offend our listeners. And so that kind of defined my career for the next two decades.
Mike Cosper: You're listening to Cultivated: Conversations about Faith and Work. And to kick off this new season, we've got a two-part episode featuring musician, producer and filmmaker Steve Taylor. He's worked with people like the Newsboys, Chevelle, and Sixpence None the Richer. And he directed Blue Like Jazz. He's also made a whole bunch of great records. It's a great conversation, so stay with us.
Steve Taylor: In college, I actually went to a Biola University for my freshman year and then promptly lost a really great scholarship. You know I wasn't a bad student, I was actually a good student but I just wasn't quite good enough to keep that really good scholarship so I came back to Denver and went to University of Colorado at Boulder which was like, you couldn't pick two bar opposite places. I wanted to study music but I was also really interested in film and so I got my degree in music. But I took what was the equivalent of like a film minor and it was a pretty new department at the time and they were not into like narrative like it was all avant-garde. There was a guy named Stan Brakhage who was kind of the guru of the department. He was like probably America's foremost avant-garde filmmaker at that time. And the South Park creators went there like four or five years later. I don't think they finished I think they dropped out after a year or two but they named Stan after Stan Brakhage.
Yeah. So that got me interested in music and film. And when I got out I thought I was interested in both. Like I didn't want to have to pick but you know I figured I'd probably be better to be in a band in my 20s and a filmmaker in my 50s and the reverse. So I got into music but then just kept one foot in film initially from doing music videos for myself and then I'd get hired to do them for other people. And then I started getting you know longer form pieces and then eventually I thought, well, hopefully one of these days I'll get into feature films.
Mike Cosper: Were you always a musician like growing up as a kid.
Steve Taylor: Well, I sang. My dad was a pastor.
Mike Cosper: What kind of church
Steve Taylor: American Baptist. You know there was always music going on in church. My dad was a really fine singer and still is. He just turned 90 and there was a pianist in the restaurant and asked for requests and I remembered he used to sing September Song in the car. He would always sing gospel songs and, you know, sacred songs in church. But in the car he would sing like standards. And so I called this old Kurt Vile song September Song and then my dad just sang it perfectly right immediately right. Came right there. So there was always music around. I was good at music theory but I could not play anything.
I started off playing bass and I was not a good bass player in fact I was in a band at Biola that ended up breaking up because I was such a bad bass player. They were so kind. They didn't want to fire me so they just broke the band up instead of fire and me. I had to pass piano proficiency in college to get my degree and I barely passed it, so I can write charts out, I can arrange things, but I just can't play anything myself.
Mike Cosper: I was told to ask you something about lounge singing school.
Steve Taylor: Totally!
Mike Cosper: Is this a thing? Tell me that story.
Steve Taylor: So, in 1979 I was still in college. Like into my... I think I was just finished my second year of college and on The Tonight Show at that time with Johnny Carson they would have you know guest hosts and Johnny brought out this guest named John Davidson who was at the time a quite a famous nightclub singer had a big Las Vegas act and he'd been in some Disney movies and ended up hosting a show called That's Incredible. He was going to have this like a school in the summer for like lounge singers. He didn't call it that just for singers right. Called it John Davidson singers singers can singers summer camp and it sounded really interesting. And then he mentioned it on the air. You had like 20,000 entries and I put my hand in the ring and was one of like 100 people picked to do it. So I went out for the summer for a month it was on Catalina Island. It was teaching you how to be like a cabaret performer. And at the time it was like you know it was a big deal like The Today Show came out and covered it. And I've got all this media coverage in Time and Newsweek. On the weekends we would go into The Avalon in the town of Catalina Island and do performances and so we'd have like arrangers there to help us arrange, we're learning how to tap dance, we're learning how to tell like banter between songs... And then I got back, you know, went back to school next year and that's when I discovered The Clash and punk rock so I'm sure it helped on some level but it wasn't necessarily good training for.
Mike Cosper: It definitely a different direction than where it is where you ended up. So you get out of college... Did you start pursuing a career in music right away?
Steve Taylor: I was saving money. I was a church custodian and also a youth pastor at the same time I was going to college and I would stash money away and then hire some friends and we'd rent out like a recording studio and started doing demos of songs that ended up becoming the first album.
Mike Cosper: How did you eventually get that stuff out there past the opposition or past the gatekeepers?
Steve Taylor: Yeah... So the label Sparrow... it was an A&R person there that had turned me down. But then I got this slot to do a couple of songs. It was the first time I had performed live.
Mike Cosper: What year is this?
Steve Taylor: This was in 1982, I think. Yeah. So a bunch of friends came up kind of loaded the audience and other friends told some other friends. So when I went on stage like a lot of people were really into it. I don't know if they actually were into it but they knew they were supposed to be into it. The head of the record label the time, Billy Ray Hearn, I'm not sure that he totally got it, but he saw that the crowd was getting it and it was honestly, he just met me on the side of the stage when I walked off stage and said I want to do a record deal. It ended up being a great label to be at. They were really supportive and they were always you know up for trying anything and they really took a very kind of hands-off approach. You know they never said do this song or don't do that song. It kinda spoiled me. It was a great experience. You know they let me do music videos, so... they didn't have a lot of money but they gave me money to do my first music video. And yeah I look back on the Sparrow experience fondly.
Mike Cosper: Yeah what years did that cover?
Steve Taylor: It was like the first album came out in 1983 and I think then the next album came out a year later and year later after that. So yeah.
Mike Cosper: Taylor's music has an edge to it. He was willing to take on controversial topics that challenge the Christian community from within. He took a swing at Jimmy Swaggart and the song guilty by association. He was critical of Bob Jones University policies about interracial dating and the song "We Don't Need No Color Code." In 1987 he caused quite a stir with a song called "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good." It tells the story about an ice cream man who blows up an abortion clinic because the clinic is going to mean fewer children and thus hurt his business. The point of the song is the absurdity of anyone who says they're pro-life and endorses killing abortion doctors. But that point was often lost, as a result, the record got pulled from many Christian bookstores. Interestingly, Steve, and I think this says something about who he is, is said to have called a lot of those stores personally to try to explain the meaning of the song.
Mike Cosper: You had the support from the label. What was the reaction from contemporary Christian culture.
Steve Taylor: It was divisive like a lot of people really liked it. A lot of people thought this was really wrong.
Mike Cosper: Like people didn't get the joke or...
Steve Taylor: I think they got the joke they just didn't think the joke was funny or they just they thought it was inappropriate. Like one thing that I got a lot. Is that you shouldn't be airing our dirty laundry in front of... you know for the world to hear. If only the world would have heard it... But I mean you know of course my response was, "Well, are you kidding? Like do you think they don't know what they just think we don't know it, right?" So it caught on quicker and in a somewhat bigger way in England when I went over there for the first time and maybe they were just more ready for it or something. But I mean you know the response of the US was generally good as well, so I can't complain.
Mike Cosper: What are your favorite memories, moments along those experiences? Is there anything you look back on with particular fondness or records that stand out to you as like, "Man, this was a moment."
Steve Taylor: Yeah. Well I mean it would be so much easier to... let me tell you that the songs I wish I wouldn't have recorded, but... you know there were good ones. One of the tough things is when you're doing something that's of a moment. It sounds like it was recorded in 1984. It's good you know but it was very much defined by that era. So... and then some of the stuff was pretty topical. So there was a song I did that got me, probably, more bad reaction than any song I'd done, which was to do with Bill Gothard and the Basic Youth Conflicts at the time... You remember all that?
Mike Cosper: Just to provide some context... Bill Gothard ran a ministry that was called Basic Youth Conflicts and later Basic Life Principles. These involved homeschool curriculum, conferences, seminars... all of them about principles for parents and families. There were teachings about parental authority. Gothard really liked the idea of authority especially for fathers over daughters. And his teaching ranged from ideas about dressing conservatively to discouraging rock music to warnings about Cabbage Patch dolls. Seriously you can look that up. Gothard eventually was disgraced for charges of sexual harassment and child molestation but that was almost two decades after Steve wrote the song he's talking about. And if you want to hear a little more about some of this you can go listen to my interview with Alissa Wilkinson from Season 1. She also had some experience with the Gothard movement.
Steve Taylor: So I did a song about that in the third album.
Mike Cosper: Which one's that?
Steve Taylor: It's called On the Fritz. The song is called "I Manipulate" and it was just... And the original version was actually way, way tougher than the final version. I had a couple of people that I would run songs by that I respected and that was one where they said, "You cannot do this, like, you've crossed the line here." So I went back and pulled it back 10 percent.
Steve Taylor: It was another song an the same album called "It's a Personal Thing" that I look back on with fondness. Especially, you know, every time election season rolls around... I mean a lot of the songs I'm really happy with. And then there's others it's just... I don't know and I was thinking you know they seemed like a good idea at the time and...
Mike Cosper: Well that's the nature of making art, right? Like, it comes from a moment and then it's always there. You can't... You're not going to be able to go get them back out.
Steve Taylor: No, in the Internet Age like you never live it down now like all those you know music videos are out there for everybody to see. And you just can't escape it.
Mike Cosper: A good friend of mine is Ronnie Martin from the band The Joy Electric.
Steve Taylor: Oh of course!
Mike Cosper: They had a video for the song "Mono Synth" where he's like all painted silver and you know it's real like super intense... And Ronnie pastors a church now in Ohio and and as part of this church planting network... and nobody really knows that part of Ronnie's life like they don't know that story. And so we were hosting a conference and Ronnie was like our emcee for some of this stuff and I just pulled that video up on YouTube as he was getting ready to take the stage and turned it on and it took a few minutes for people to realize that that was Ronnie... because he's painted silver and all this kind of stuff. And he was just dying. And he said afterwards you know he was talking about the video and... because it's just so over the top and he said it when he made that it was like 1996 and it was on Tooth and Nail Records which was this tiny independent label at the time. And you you make these things and they're being copied onto VHS tapes and sent off to like 300 fans. And you think that's all... this is just a joke it's funny. You know you're never gonna see it again. And now the Internet is like that thing follows him everywhere he goes. So when I picked up with your music was when you put out Squint I guess in between that and some of the earlier stuff was Chagall Guevara. That was more of a mainstream record. So you sort of stood on both sides of the fence in terms of contemporary Christian music and mainstream music. How do you navigate that tension? What do you think about that? I know some of the artists that you've... I mean, you worked with Sixpence when they broke over the other side too. So what do you think about that dichotomy.
Well that experience of forming the band with the idea of "let's do this" and signed to a mainstream label was formative in many ways. It's one of things... it's what got me out to Nashville because I was living in L.A. at that time and all the band members were Christians but we just wanted to be a successful rock band. It was tricky. You know we started making demos we started playing around and got a following and then came time we're ready to be seen, kind of, and we got a really good response really quickly from multiple labels and ended up signing with a label called MCA Records which was you know a big label at the time. I remember... this is a long story but you were the one who asked for them... So we fly out to L.A. I think we've already signed our deal. We fly out to L.A. and we're going to meet with different people at the label and talk about the album cover and different things like that. And we arrive at LAX. and they're actually going to send a limo to pick us up and take us to MCA headquarters. But the limo is late and it's so late and we're so hungry that we actually ended up ordering a pizza and having it delivered while we were still waiting you know at LAX So we get there and we were having a great time. And we have to have two A&R representatives that are kind of both working with us. And so we get to her office—one of their offices—and we tell her the story and she says, "Well I hope it wasn't Dominos that delivered the pizza." And I was like, "Why you don't like their crust? And she says "No you know they're those Nazis that support the, you know, pro-life movement" and so... and so as soon as she said that like you know my recollection is some of my bandmates were just saying you know.. "Come on Steve, don't go there." And I was like, "You know my mom was part of the pro-life movement. So I said, "I'm sorry what?" She said, "You know all those pro-life Nazis are all the same." "Well, Teresa, you know... number one, no they're not Nazis. Number two, I have got a little bit of a connection with this so you know." We ended up getting in like this really big argument right there like kind of our first official act as a band. And it keeps going like we ended up going to... you know we're going to the next meeting we're still arguing in the hallway. Finally we get the next meeting. And you know the other A&R guy says, "Hey, can we call little truce just so we can talk about an album cover. So afterwards the other A&R guy says, "Hey, Steve so if you know you're doing a radio interview and somebody asks you about your views about abortion, like what are you going to tell them?" and I said, "Well I'll probably just tell them what I believe don't think that's a good idea?" He clearly did not think that was a good idea. And so it was it was like you know at some point like the veil just lifts and I say it's like, Oh I get it. So I was on this and record label and I've got this you know one set of beliefs that I'm supposed to follow... now I'm here on this alternative label that you know they're going to push it on alternative radio... And now I'm supposed to follow another set of beliefs just like I just traded one straightjacket for another straightjacket. And so I mean it was it was a good experience and you know unfortunately we never got popular enough to have conversations or arguments but it was... it was very...revealing. And that was partly what informed starting Squint is that... How do we make a label that... there's so much great talent within kind of this Christian music... if you treat it as a farm team... There are bands that need to be heard by the rest of the world. But what would that label look like and how would it support artists differently? So that was really the impetus behind ultimately starting the record label. But you know I mean experience with Chagall was a great experience and we we made a record we're still really happy with. But ultimately it was... There was so much tension even in... you know, we went through a massive argument within the band whether to play Cornerstone or not. And we ultimately ended up playing it. But I mean you know like there was blood on the tracks over that one and we just... it was so much tension over over that question and part of it was because there was no path that had already been trod before we couldn't say let's do it the way this band did it. There just wasn't any other situation we could look at and follow. You know you could maybe argue well U2 had done it on some level but it wasn't a great analogy. So we just kind of were on our own and making it up as we went.
Mike Cosper: Yeah it's like once that subculture was established, it seems like it was probably really hard for Christians to sort of go anywhere but there for a long, long time.
Steve Taylor: Yes. And I was thinking today for some reason you know the Sixpence album was as a really fine album.
Mike Cosper: It's so good.
Steve Taylor: But man I mean there were elements of the press that was like they might as well have have been like you know the Cowsills or something like they were just not going to treat them as anything else than that Christian band, right? It didn't matter what the album sounded like, didn't matter how successful they got. They would always be pigeon-holed as that Christian band. And you know that was a problem with Chevelle too, they had this great band and album produced by Albini and there were people that were fair-minded and there were others that were just like "not if they have that history, no way" you know they would kind of go out of their way to not only diss them but to like, do it in kind of a kind of cruel ways that had nothing to do with their music.
Mike Cosper: I remember when the Sixpence record came out I was like a kid in the youth group and surround by Christian music all the time and I had... like most of my friends were not Christians and most of my friends... and most of the music I listen to wasn't Christian music. It was rare that a record would come along and be like, oh, I love this. And it was like The Prayer Chain and three or four other bands really really caught my attention. And that record came out and it was funny because as soon as it came out. It captured my imagination. The lyric that I always remember the first time I heard it kind of took my breath away is when she sings, "This is my 45th depressing tune / They're looking for money as they clean my artistic wound." Which is like... it takes your breath away. And then "Kiss Me" came out as the single which is like the one joyful... you know, pop song and the whole record. And so all of a sudden everybody is talking about this Sixpence record and I'm like but have you actually listened to what they're doing? Part of what struck me about the album and what strikes me about a lot of the projects that you've done is they defy categorization. You know when you're in the Christian world you're pushing against these sort of norms of being saccharine and joyful. When you're in the secular marketplace you're pushing against those norms. Is that like an intentional thing or is that just sort of like... you've listen to the Clash and now you're just you've got the punk rock thing imbibed and that's... you know what I mean?
Steve Taylor: Yeah yeah. There is a treatise that maybe has already been written... The inner monologue that goes on in your head when you grow up with kind of that punk rock ethic. And I say grow up like you know it hit me in college. But part of it is any time you do something that whiffs of success like you must be doing something wrong, right? That's a really hard thing to escape you know. But I remember when we were doing the Sixpence album they were depressed like they were right on the edge of breaking up and they'd been on an indie label the label went bankrupt. They had come to me about producing our album right for the label bankrupt and so I ended up paying for the album on a credit card... At the same time I'm fighting this new evil empire in Chicago that's trying to take over their record deal and you know it was just crazy and the odds were so stacked against us they were just you know in a bad place. The thing that saved them is we just started making music again because they were ready to break up as a band. And so it was you know a lot of depressing songs came out of that. But we started playing and "Kiss Me" in the studio and I remember like Matt the main songwriter is in the control room with me and Leigh is in the vocal booth... Dale the drummer and J.J. the bass player are in the studio and we were like getting the groove together and I'm like, "Oh this feels good, right?" And it didn't start that way. Like the original song was... the demo was almost like a dirge. So I turned around and I'm thinking "yeah" and I'm talking to Matt, like "you know hey, right?" And he's like "I'm not feeling this," right? You know I tried not to push too hard in those situations but I really pushed and said, "Man I think this is something we need to do." And you know thankfully he assented. But, it was... That album needed that song.
Mike Cosper: No, he's probably still thankful to this day. So after Chagall Guevara you go back to being a solo artist, go back to the Christian world. Like was that again kind of an intentional...
Steve Taylor: Yeah, you know what did it was... As relatively unsuccessful as we'd been on MCA, they really wanted another album. We were more successful than all their other rock bands and so they want us to do another album and we're like... anything but another album for you guys, like, so we're trying to get off the label and at the same time you know we've been kind of at each other about how undercover we should be about our faith and there was like... this just like... you know a lot of tension. A friend of mine in town at a Christian label sent me this demo of this band called Newsboys. And the song was called "I'm Not Ashamed." And then the chorus was... "I'm not ashamed to speak the name of Jesus Christ," right? And the song definitely needed a lot of help. He... sent it to me to see if I would want to you know rewrite the lyrics which I agreed. They needed work but I love this notion so much that I got with the leader of the band, Peter, and said, "Man here's the new lyrics, what do you think?" And he really liked them and I said, "Why don't you let me produce this for you, and you know, let's see what happens." And so we went in the studio and produced that track and the label liked it so much I ended up producing the album. But it was a good experience. You know they were Australian, so that kind of helped too, I had always gotten on with Australians for whatever reason. Maybe because they have such a chip on their shoulder, I don't know. But it was a great experience and reminded me of what I liked about Christian music. And then I had an opportunity to do another album and the experience that I had coming out of Chagall Guevara was musically very satisfying. So that was what the Squint album came from and that's an album that... like for the first time I finished that album... and every album before at the time seemed good but that album, "Squint," I can still listen to it and think "Oh yeah, I think this is pretty good."
Steve Taylor: Ended up being a great experience and then the kicker was the label gave me like $75,000 to make a long form video. And they were like we don't care what you do just as long as we can sell it, right? And so I took the money and we bought four round the world tickets at Delta Airlines at the time. As long as you kept going the same direction you could go anywhere they flew in the world. We bought an old 35mm film camera. My sound man came along to do sound and a friend of mine who was a still photographer, Ben Pierson, he learned right for we left how to work the camera. One other guy was like a road manager and we shot all these videos in like these really exotic locations around the world. And it was one of those projects where everything should have gone wrong and like God smiled on us and everything went right. And it turned out to be a really good project and we're the first American film crew to shoot in North Vietnam since they paraded P.O.W.'s down the streets and we were in like Nepal and all these exotic locations and it was just a blast. So that was probably more than anything the experience that really made me want to get into filmmaking seriously.
Mike Cosper: It's interesting like... I want to pull back for a minute and just talk about the impulse to be an artist. The impulse to make these things and send them out to the world. How would you describe that for yourself? What is it about you that in the first place made you go... Because it takes a certain audacity to say OK I'm going I'm going to play music or I'm going to... like that. Like, here's all this money go make a film and you're just... OK let's go around the world like let's bootstrap it and make it this way. Where's that audacity come from for you?
Steve Taylor: Let's go back to John Davidson and... back where we started. Back to lounge singing. Because of the things he said like really stuck with me in one of our late night sessions... He said, "When you're on stage," he said, "try to latch on to those places in you that are kind of childlike and vulnerable." And he said "and don't think you don't have them because if you were a totally well-rounded individual you wouldn't feel that need to get on stage in the first place."
Mike Cosper: That's like Richard Pryor quote, you know, "Happy well-adjusted people don't get into this business."
Steve Taylor: Yes. Right. Right. Right. But that part's a mystery to me because I actually had a great childhood and have a great family and I don't know where that thing is that makes me want to like make something and show it to people but it's just... it's just there. You know probably always been there and it's probably not really a good thing...
Mike Cosper: Do you mean that sincerely? Like, it's not a good thing?
Steve Taylor: Yeah, I do in that being a recording artist in particular maybe less so with filmmaker and that's that's probably one of the reasons I got into producing and ultimately into filmmaking is... but being a recording artist where you wake up every day and you're thinking what am I going to do to get people to work for me and to like me and you know like it's all about this self-promotion and it's part of the job. And you can't not do it but it doesn't square well with our Christian faith. That's just a tricky one, right? And I still don't have an answer to it after all these years outside of it's a good thing to know that it's not a good thing.
Mike Cosper: And yet to still pursue it...
Steve Taylor: I mean you know I think... I think making stuff is good. You know we need it and it's a high calling we need more followers of Jesus to be doing it as well. But if you go into it thinking that it doesn't have its downside and dark side and gravitational pull you will get sucked under.
Mike Cosper: Or to think that it's going to satisfy something deep in you.
Steve Taylor: Absolutely. We had this I've had this conversation actually with an actor friend and you know one day he was just complaining... "if I could just get to... like to just get..." And he'd been successful, right? "Just get this one, like... like a hit movie like that would be it. I'd be fine." I said no you won't be fine. You will never be satisfied. Like, it will never be enough. You always feel like you got ripped off or you never got the credit you deserve, right? It will never be enough. And it's almost like we should go into... There should be some kind of school training where we have to go for six months first. You have to write all this down and you have to sign it on a piece of paper to keep going back and realizing that you know you're never going to be satisfied.
Mike Cosper: Thanks for listening. Steve will be back next week to talk about making a movie with Michael W. Smith, making records with Steve Albini, the long journey to making Blue Like Jazz, and his return to music after a 20-year hiatus. We've got two big announcements this week. First, Harbor Media is launching a new podcast on September 6th. It's called "Steadfast" and it's hosted by Sandra McCracken. Stay tuned after the credits and you can hear a preview of the show. Or you can go ahead and subscribe today in your favorite podcast app. Second, we'll be launching our membership program in September. This means that you can pay five bucks a month and get access to behind the scenes info, unedited interviews, early releases, and a whole lot more. And you'll get the joy of knowing that you helped make this show happen. Also if you pay for a year in advance, just 60 bucks, you get a free T-shirt. Our show today was produced by me. It was edited by T.J. Hester. It was mixed by Mark Owens our theme song is by Roman Candle. Today's music was by Steve Taylor. Special thanks to Dan Darling and Jason Thacker. All right. Stay tuned for the preview and we'll see you next week.
This episode was produced by Mike Cosper
It was edited by TJ Hester and Mike Cosper
It was mixed by Mark Owens
Our music today is by Steve Taylor
Our theme song is by Roman Candle
Special Thanks to Dan Darling and Jason Thacker