May , 1985
By David Huff
Petra using some ‘spirit’ to beat the system
Boring is the last acronym you’d ever use when it came to describing the music industry. This past year alone saw two major developments that reshaped two major labels. MCA Records restructured its entire business model by overhauling its entire catalogue of artists, acquiring Miles Copeland’s IRS Records and basically staving off bankruptcy. A&M Records decided to broaden its musical reach by signing a distribution deal with the powerhouse Christian music label, Word Records.
"Hey, Christian music is where it's a!” remarked A&M regional rep Ed Climie with no hint of mockery in his voice. "We are going to make their artists big, and I mean really big. Amy Grant, Petra, they are hot! They are selling out everywhere they go. The only reason you have never heard of these artists before is because their music was only available in Christian book stores. Now they are distributed in record stores throughout the country competing with rock, jazz, country, R&B."
All record label reps are confident their artists are going to set the world on fire, but there was something different about Climie's attitude about A&M's gamble into the world of contemporary Christian music, if indeed that's what it was.
Christian music and the people who perform it have always had somewhat of a stigma attached to them as Bible thumpers more intent on spreading the word rather than just playing music. There’s a lot of misconception regarding the genre of music Christian artists occupy. Then again, when you have an us versus them mentality, you bring it upon yourself when misinformation becomes gospel rather than the truth.
The following interview is with the founding member of the Christian superstar group, Petra. One of the hottest CCM bands in the country, the band routinely sells out major arenas and auditoriums across the country. The following interview is candid and straight to the point. No punches were pulled, no gentile language left out. Draw your own conclusions as the worlds of secular and non-secular music collide.
JAM: For the past five years I have watched and listened to fundamentalist Christian groups attack hard rock bands, heavy metal, you name it, with a vengeance. I’m assuming that Petra's musical messages are more in line with what is morally acceptable with Christian viewpoints?
Bob Hartman – We are not exempt from those attacks either.
We started 13 years ago playing the same music we do today and it was very, very difficult for us. The churches really persecuted us a lot for what we were trying to do. In the last three years however, there has been a gigantic turnaround, though we still receive some persecution, mainly in the form of Jimmy Swaggert.
JAM: I am finding what you are saying almost too much to believe. Is the crunching sound from a guitar really that unholy?
I think that the problem that we have has been one of educating the church, and I don't mean to say that in a haughty or proud way. The church has always been reluctant to accept a form of art that the world uses, especially when it is used for the Lord. There is a real history of that in the church from when the early settlers moved to America. Then, they believed that a violin was a demonic instrument. Those ideas have been around for a long time.
JAM: The world is heading into the 21st Century. Aren't those archaic ideas just a bit dated?
You would think so, but certain kinds of music could not be used for the Lord. But, we have always felt that music was just a vehicle for the message and a way to communicate culturally with a generation. That is the way that we try to use it.
JAM: Is it correct to call you a Christian rock band?
That's a good way of saying it. Rock and roll wouldn't be a bad term to us either. However, Jimmy Swaggert, in an article written about us, condemned that term saying it wasn't a positive thing to say.
JAM: Do you really care what a Bible thumping blowhard like Swaggert has to say?
No, not at all! Petra has been through enough of that stuff over the years where it doesn't bother us. The band is firm in the fact that as a group, we know what we’re doing is right and our music is getting results. We really don't worry that much about it.
JAM: Because your band is doing extremely well, is it easier to allow the criticism to slide on by?
You never close your ears to critics, but there comes a point in time where you realize you just can’t please everyone, so you learn to move on rather than try to answer whatever charges have been leveled against you.
JAM: A leading Christian evangelist and recording artist, Andrea Crouch was arrested for cocaine possession. I find it quite hypocritical that your rank and file routinely condemns rock and roll music for this kind of behavior, but when it comes to your own rank and file, suddenly tears are flowing and you hear them ask God for help.
I understand your feelings. And those charges against Andrea were dropped.
JAM: So that makes it okay?
You're right! It doesn't make a difference. One of the biggest problems people have with Christians is they can look at them and find fault and wonder, 'Well who are these people to preach to me?' It's true that there is a lot of hypocrisy among Christians, even Christian's in music. It is just the matter of each individual person and his relationship with God on how they live their life on and off the stage.
JAM: Is Petra a musical version of preaching?
It depends on what your definition of it is. We do not try to stuff our philosophy down someone's throat, but we are evangelistic. We think that there is a need for us to communicate our messages in our way so that somebody would know what to do with that message after we have given it to them. In other words, we talk in concert about accepting the Lord as our savior and we make overt references to Christ in our concerts. Now if that falls in the category of preacher to you, then I would say, 'Yes, we are!'
JAM: Are you consciously trying to shut out segments of the population where religion just isn’t that big of a deal from your shows?
No, but we do attract a particular type of audience. We have people come to our concerts just to enjoy our music. That is a good thing because it shows us that people are open-minded enough to just listen to our songs and enjoy it. Whether or not they grasp our entire philosophy, or theology, is another question.
JAM: I am very surprised that a major label paid any attention to your music and took a chance on you?
The reason is quite simple really. Contemporary Christian music has grown in such large proportions that the music industry can no longer ignore it. We are selling out the same arenas that many secular groups do, and sometimes selling just as many records as secular bands.
JAM: What is a secular band?
Secular as opposed to Christian!
JAM: Oh, give me a break. Did you just say secular as opposed to Christian?
It is not a derogatory term in any way. Secular is just music that is not about Christ, the Lord or religious music.
JAM: So does that make it less valid of a form of music as to what your message music is trying to accomplish?
No, I don't think so.
JAM: You don't think so? Answer me this. You have been a band for 13 years. During that period of time, have you ever met up with a quote 'secular' band and just talked to them?
I can't say that I have, well, maybe a long time ago.
JAM: Do you ever listen to anything outside of contemporary Christian music?
I grew up with the Beatles and Hendrix, so I am familiar with secular music.
JAM: Have you ever thought about investigating secular bands that are under attack by the church because of their musical content, the illusion they create onstage, on record, on their album covers to find out why they do it?
JAM: So in effect, you just don't know what in the world is going on outside of your own, narrow scope of music?
Well, I am not putting down any band.
JAM: I think you and a lot of Christians, whether they are musicians or not, are misguided and confused about secular music is in general. Bands like Ozzy Osborne, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are musicians, and at times entertainers, when they get on that stage. They use special effects to highlight songs and to get the crowds excited. There’s no evil personified in their lyrics. Unfortunately, Christians take their religious leaders words as gospel. One of these days, scandals are going to rip your world apart and secular music won’t be blamed.
I don't know what to say outside the fact that in a sense, you're right. Here is where I think the church has missed the boat. Our leaders have not been able to define the difference in music themselves. In other words, the church has been trying to make kid’s minds up for them instead of allowing them that choice. If they concentrated on defining what is good music, instead of trying to make the choice for them, perhaps the confusion would end and certain questions would be answered.
JAM: Secular music is too easy a target. It will never happen.
Don’t be so sure about that. Where I have to take a stand, and you may disagree with me, but I really believe there is some music out there that’s not really good for kids to listen to. There are lyrics to a lot of secular songs that are really not good for kids to have their minds filled with because of the subject matter of the songs. I don’t think it’s a good idea for kids to listen to that type of music and take in those negative messages repeatedly. When you listen to a particular song repeatedly, it becomes a part of you once it gets stuck in your mind. I am not saying that it controls you, but it does make you think of those lyrics, and those words can be telling you to go out and snort cocaine, get high, get laid, whatever.
JAM: To an extent that is true, but then again, that's like saying the song "I am a Warrior," by the group Scandal should be banned from the airwaves because a madman in San Diego listened to that very song before he walked into a McDonald's and murdered 22 people. People, kids, are smarter than what you are giving them credit for.
When lyrics in a song say, 'Go out and get laid! Let's get high tonight!' or contain other sexual or anti-religious statements, that is where a band like Petra takes a stand. Kids should not be subjected to that kind of music. I think it is irresponsible to put those things in a song and a misuse of a God given gift or talent.
JAM: Shouldn't you really be directing your arguments towards the record companies that sign these bands and push these songs to radio stations across the country?
Artists would then scream censorship.
JAM: So has A&M Records, by divesting itself of IRS Records and picking up the Word label, cleansed itself in your mind?
A&M looks at contemporary Christian music like this. This is a direct quote from a label executive who told his marketing people this. 'We don't distribute Christian rock. We distribute records that are good.' They don't care if it is Christian act or whatever they think when it comes to handling their music. If the music is good, they will distribute the product. They have a lot of artists on their label that have different philosophical viewpoints apart from our own. In other words, religion doesn't matter to them.
JAM: But does the religion matter to you?
Yes! It reinforces the positive messages our music has to say. When I hear music that promotes promiscuous lifestyles, drug usage or whatever, I don't think it's good.
JAM: You are almost beginning to sound like your major Christian antagonist Jimmy Swaggert?
JAM: Well …
Like I said earlier, just like other segments of music, Petra is not immune from criticism. We have had people distribute leaflets outside our concerts condemning what we’re doing and playing. The whole thing comes down to you can't condemn Christianity because of what some other Christians do. Yes it is embarrassing. The thing is, you can’t condemn an entire genre of music, whether it be Christian or rock music, because some people within those ranks of music act irresponsible with their craft.
JAM: Is rock music a safer medium for people to identify with, as opposed to Christian music, because there is no subtle pressure to confess your love for God in order to be saved?
That's hard to answer. We know there are people that are not going to agree with what we do. There’s going to be individuals out there that simply don’t like our music. There is going to be people out in the world that are going to think our particular type of music is wrong. As a musicians, you have to follow your heart and do what you think is right. I am not going to say that our concerts are not geared in such a way that if a person wanted to be saved during the show, it couldn't happen, because it has!
JAM: Have I misinterpreted the term subtle pressure when applying it to Christian music?
Let's just say that our audiences share a communal unity amongst themselves and a tremendous spirit of oneness. If you went to a Petra concert, you would probably find it kind of weird. We put on a rock concert, but in the terms you've come to associate rock with. I’m sure you wouldn’t see it that way. At the end of our shows, we kind of sum up what we have been saying in our songs and how to accept Christ. We actually have the audience stand up and pray.
JAM: I think that’s taken your position as an artist to the extreme!
Like I said, you wouldn’t understand what we do.
JAM: Sounds like you are preaching instead of entertaining.
Maybe it’s a little bit of both, but not in the way you’re thinking. We do make literature available to people who want further information on God. There are people stationed around the halls who will talk to anyone looking to discuss the subject. It’s not a hard sell. We don’t make people come up front to confess their sins or anything like that. We just create the opportunity for people to explore their inner feelings about Christ and make available information and knowledge about the subject.