Walk on the Mild Side

One East Bay Christian rock purveyor's battle for integrity

Two years ago, Frank Tate heard a CD by Plank Eye, a young noise pop quartet
from Irvine, Calif. Tate didn't think much of the record; he recalls thinking that the band had desire, but not talent. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd want on his East Bay Christian label, Five Minute Walk.

Plank Eye eventually found a home at Tooth & Nail Records, a Christian label distributed by EMI. When the band hit the Bay Area on a recent tour, Tate invited them to perform at Club Screem, a warehouse venue that he runs in Concord. The band answered Tate's invitation with a lengthy and detailed set of requirements, including catered food and dressing rooms. Tate blanched. "They had a record that would make a deaf person embarrassed," he says. "Then they came to Club Screem with a 12-page list of demands. It's sad."

To hear Tate tell it, it's sad, but not unusual. Plank Eye's march from obscurity to temerity is just one indication of the rocky marriage between Christian music and good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll stardom. EMI (the corporate home of Capitol Records) isn't the only conglomerate watching the music's astonishing growth -- an average of 22 percent annually over the last seven years. BMG (home of RCA Records) and WEA (Warner Bros. and associated labels) have acquired Christian subsidiaries as well. But while cutthroat tactics are becoming commonplace, Tate, his producer-partner Masaki Liu, and the bands on Five Minute Walk try to keep things real -- to remain honest and Christian-like through business deals and tempting adulation. But it's a tough game. It is, after all, a sinful world, and in Christian rock sometimes even the saints act like sinners.

Tate, 31, learned this lesson all too well back in 1994, as manager for the now-defunct Christian rock band the Prayer Chain. While booking shows and negotiating record contracts, Tate saw firsthand the power plays, backstabbing, and commodification of bands at the hands of clubs and labels alike. Fed up with the poor behavior, Tate started Five Minute Walk Records -- which refers to spending at least five minutes a day talking to Jesus as a friend -- out of his Concord home. It's grown from a one-band label that same year into a home for six bands, including Denver-based ska heavy-hitters Five Iron Frenzy.

Tate has tried to avoid problems. "I get to know bands really well beforehand," he says. "I base the decision on who the bands are every day. If they're good Christians with a lot of character then I'll sign them." He says Five Minute Walk works to maintain this character throughout its personal relationship with bands -- especially on tour, where the potential for un-Christian behavior is ripe. "I make sure that each tour is connected with a charity drive," says Tate. "Each band is responsible for collecting clothes or food along the way. That way they're reminded to serve others and not themselves."

From the time Elvis first began flaunting his sexuality, active American Christians have been appalled at rock 'n' roll. But by the early '70s, the Jesus movement had surfaced and some Christians had begun to figure that they might be able to use music for their own agendas, both keeping children in the fold and possibly attracting newcomers to Christ. As rock evolved, so too did Christian rock: The bluesy rock of Petra ruled the '70s; the hair metal of Stryper slayed the '80s. The Christians had commercial successes with the pseudo-alternative Jars of Clay into the '90s.

But enlightening kids through musical flavors of the month is risky. Christian labels constantly chance losing the very youth they've struggled so hard to attract by associating institutionalized religious beliefs with rock's passing fads and inherently un-Christian selfishness. "We want to enhance kids' relationship with Christ without cramming it down their throats," says Tate, an easygoing, clean-cut guy who favors neat collared shirts and bluejeans.

Since 1994, Tate has been putting on shows in warehouse spaces in an industrial part of Concord. At Club Screem for a Friday night show, around 300 kids mill around in small groups at the back of the white-walled cavern. They talk about new piercings, school traumas, and the merits of Christian ska and punk bands. The members of Plank Eye swagger onstage, each raising one arm in a regal greeting. The audience cheers fall to silence as the band commences the night's show with a standard opening prayer to Jesus. But once the music starts, a friendly mosh pit swells to life, parents and kids alike playfully pushing one another to Plank Eye's distorted guitar crunch. Midsong, hands rise in response to the sing-along chorus of "Who loves you more? -- Jesus," while frontman Scott Silletta leads the proceedings like rock's answer to Jimmy Swaggart.

But when the kids start screaming, the deadly sins kick in. Fame's persuasive power is new for many of these bands, and the temptation is sometimes too much. Masaki Liu, guitarist-turned-producer for the extinct Christian rock band Dime Store Prophets, formerly on Five Minute Walk, says this is all too common among today's Christian bands. "It's outrageous," says Liu. "A lot of Christian bands get caught up in a rock star image, but they can also get this attitude that they are these special instruments of God. Kids tend to get really jaded when they see bands acting like that."

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