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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Scott Krueger of psalters
By Titi Ala'ilima
psalters' 1998 debut, Prayers to Be, took the concept of contemporary worship recording in a direction all but unheard of in this age of praise choruses and rock ballads to God. In 1999, at their first Cornerstone appearance, this project found an eager throng of co-worshippers grooving to their updated Middle Eastern experimental world rock sound. What the audience probably didn't know was how new the sound and the ability to create it were to psalters' mastermind, Scott Krueger. In the aftermath of those two shows, the Tollbooth caught up with Krueger, who shared a bit about how it all came together, and where it seems to be going.
Krueger: I read in a couple of books somewhere that the people who performed the Psalms back in David's time were called "psalters." They were people who praised God through music. What I wanted to do is glorify God through music and I wanted to do it in the way that they did it, not with the same sound or the same style or with the same rituals, but with the same philosophy, the same heart, and the same passion.
That was back in '93. Back then I couldn't play anything. I was talking to Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine and I said, "I'm too old to start music." She encouraged me to go with it, and said, "When you make it, give me a call." Ever since I wanted to be in music, it was always the psalters project. The name is an identity, not a band name.
Tollbooth: You say you were trying to get at the original philosophy of the psalters who performed the Psalms. What would you characterize as the main elements of that?
Krueger: Exodus. They created their music amidst exodus and it was exodus with faith. They did not fixate in pain and sorrow and just stay there and not see hope. And they didn't stay comfortable and stagnant in praise and joy and pastels. They were in movement, they were in pilgrimage, they were going through the depths of the sea, and the wilderness and the desert. Their music had that passion and struggle in it.
In order to go into exodus you have to have faith. You have to have trust that God will deliver you. And if you read throughout the Psalms, there's this crazy lamentation, and it's honest and it's truthful. When they were in pain they admitted it and they talked about it and they struggled with it. They didn't ignore it. They said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But then, even in the midst of that struggle, while they were right in it, they would cry out in faith and say, "Praise you God." So I characterize it as a constant movement; struggle for righteousness with great faith.
Tollbooth: What personal sense of exodus have you felt? How has your worship been transformed from struggles and working that out in this project?
Krueger: It didn't seem like it was going happen. Last year we had a little bit of a project going and it was such a pain just to get people to come to practice. They were part of it, but I don't know how much of a vision they had for it. It was a struggle to get them to do it, and we somehow made it happen, but then they were done. Trying to get this group of people together [for the Cornerstone gig], I went through about 50 different people and four or five different lineup changes. It didn't seem like it was going to happen at all. God taught a lot through that. Some of the best music that I've written was actually written during the times when I thought that this whole thing was just not God's will. I thought it was just time to throw in the towel.
Tollbooth: What kinds of trials, what kinds of victories have you seen?
Krueger: I work at Covenant House which is a shelter for runaway teenagers. Working with the homeless and learning from them and what they have to say about life has taught me a lot. The struggles of dealing with ghetto people and that whole mentality--because I don't have that mentality--living among them, that has been quite a struggle. That's been an exodus from my upper middle-class upbringing and my comfy-cozy life that I've been blessed to have. Then going into Philly and living there and hanging out with heroin addicts, people who are constantly manipulating you because that's the only way they can live, hearing gunshots in the middle of the night. The struggles of that have really helped me with my music and with my spiritual life and that's the key; the best place for art is also the best place for your spiritual life and that's amidst exodus.
I believe in this fallen world we are to be pilgrims. God created order out of chaos and he moved over the surface of waters and then there was light. I think that's kind of how art is. You go through the struggle and then you create out of what you experience from that struggle and there's that movement from pain to struggle to joy, it's that constant cycle. It's that cycle that we need to stay in, for art and for our spiritual life. So many of us Christians have such crappy art because we don't seem to be willing to struggle as much as we should. It's the same problem with America in general.
Tollbooth: What sorts of reactions have you had to your music? You've had trouble even getting people participating in the project to catch the vision. How have other people responded to what you're doing?
Krueger: Overall, incredible, but not what you expect. Either they don't come up to talk to me at all and just leave because they didn't like it, or they just pour their heart out and express how worshipful it is. God's used this project as a wonderful opportunity for worship, for us and the people that we're worshipping with. I could go on with incredible stories.
Tollbooth: You could share one, if you like.
Krueger: A guy came up on Thursday and said when we started playing the Holy Spirit just swooped down. He just fell on his knees and started crying. He had some of his friends there who were not Christians and he said that they felt the Spirit, too. That was the neatest one of all; to be able to be used by God in such a way to reach people who don't even really believe in him at the moment.
Tollbooth: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned some constructive criticism that you've heard from people who have not responded as well to your music. How has that helped you with your project?
Krueger: People are just reinforcing things I already had a sense of. I know there's a lot of work to be done with melodies, well, with everything, but it's not discouraging, because those are all things that will come with time. There weren't many complaints with the concept. If Psalters actually has a chance to be a group of people working on music together for a long period of time, to be a band for a while, we would work those problems out.
Tollbooth: What do you think are the prospects of this current band or some reasonably close permutation sticking together for a while?
Krueger: I don't know. I'll tell you that before when I had asked them to be in it, people were like "Yeah, yeah, I'll help out." But after being here and doing the shows it seems like a lot larger percentage are wanting to do it long term. So who knows, maybe who we have now may be Psalters for a long time. Whatever God has in plan. I haven't really prayed about it much yet, so I don't know.
Tollbooth: How did you go about finding people for the project?
Krueger: Basically just people that I knew. Unfortunately I haven't really gotten too much into that arts/music circle that musicians usually do and I'm kind of regretting that now, because it's such a great pool of talent you can tap into when you need it. At Eastern College, where I just graduated, there are a lot of really good musicians. I went there first and I grabbed who was interested. And then a little here and there, some people from my church and some word of mouth, just all over. And like I said, it went through so many different lineups. I had a 55 year-old that grew up a Christian in Pakistan, an incredible tabla player. I had some guy from Greece who was a wonderful bouzouki player, and this violinist from the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. But all those people, (laugh) God didn't want them to do it. The one guy couldn't do it, and then the other guys thought, "Well, this thing ain't going nowhere," so they left. Then other people came in and then they weren't coming to practice, and then other people came in, and eventually God just weeded things out, and changed the project in the meantime. After a few months of weeding out we finally came to who we have. So I think God kind of picked 'em. I just asked everybody and He picked who should be there.
Tollbooth: Sow widely and see how the seed falls.
Krueger: Yeah, exactly, that's what we did.
Tollbooth: Can you remark on your first Cornerstone experience?
Krueger: It's beautiful. I love it. The people have been so incredibly encouraging and so positive to us. They were a lot of what made the shows such incredible worship services. It was like this kind of communion, intermingling. That was wonderful. I don't think that would have happened a lot of other places. There's some incredible people who love Jesus who gather here and it's cool. One of our guys is Orthodox Jewish. I was really concerned that I'd have a lot of Bible Belt preaching people coming at him but for the most part people have been so loving to him and it's been quite a witness to him so I'll give that as props to Cornerstone, too. He's felt very loved here and very accepted here. He's seen the spirit, he's said. He's Orthodox Jewish but he said that he's felt the spirit here and felt like a brother.
On the other hand, one thing that I noticed through my relationship with him--he's real big on tradition and practicing the disciplines of the law is that Cornerstone is a Protestant haven, and it celebrates freedom in Christ. That is beautiful, but I think that may just be the start, not an endpoint. We [Christians], Protestants especially, need to learn to celebrate our heritage, not because we have to, but because we love God. Celebrate the laws that are there as a discipline. That's one thing I've noticed here at Cornerstone. There's not very much of a desire to humble ourselves under the laws of our heritage or our past.
Tollbooth: How did you end up bringing him into the group and how has that affected the spiritual dynamic of it? How does having an Orthodox Jew as a member affect your dynamic? You obviously sing some songs very directly about Yeshua.
Krueger: I met him at a party for a bunch of Temple [U.] musicians. There was a whole orchestra at the party. I met him through another violinist. We just were talking and he was really intrigued with Psalters as a project. He did a lot of praying and I did a lot of praying about it. I think we both felt that it was God's will to do this, at least at the present time. It's quite a struggle. What we do right now is, songs like "Yeshua," he would not feel comfortable performing, and neither would I feel comfortable having him perform them. Every song we do is glorifying God as known through Jesus. He's felt comfortable enough to perform songs that were just about God. We're worshipping the same God, and that's the approach we're both kind of taking. It's a struggle. but it's been a blessing, too. We've been growing a lot, learning a lot. All I can say is I feel very strongly it was God's will. Do I feel comfortable about it totally? No, and neither does he. But God works in strange ways, and it's been beautiful, that's all I can say.
Tollbooth: It'd be scary if we were all comfortable with God's will.
Krueger: Yeah maybe it's all a part of this struggle/exodus thing that we keep talking about.
Tollbooth: Can you comment on any influences you have in terms of lyric, themes, styles?
Kreuger: I don't know if I have a lot of influences any more. It's more like I'll just hear a little something here and a little something there. I don't know how to play anyone else's music and that kind of is how it is with influences, too. My main thing is studying our heritage, trying to find out what the early psalms sounded like, trying to find out what early Christian music sounded like in the early church while they were still being persecuted, before Constantine. And listening to the African-American spirituals. Any music that was born out of struggle...
Krueger: Yeah. Music is culturally rooted, and I believe that because of that, when something is developed over generations, the actual sounds of that music take on the experiences of that culture. So I believe that music that was born out of generations and generations of a culture struggling against the oppression of a dominant culture, struggling for righteousness, like the African-American slaves, like the early church, like people in Sudan right now, like people in India, like the people of ancient Israel, actually takes on the sounds of that struggle. I believe it's the sound of Christ, the suffering servant. I think those sounds can help to heal us, being a culture that is dominant and stagnant. So those are my influences too.
Tollbooth: How do you deal with the tradeoff between accessibility and artistic vision? Your music can be, for many, hard to get into, but at the same time you don't want to simply reduce it to lowest common denominator. How have you balanced that?
Krueger: This is art-oriented music. All music is a combination of art and social function, entertainment or whatever, leading people into feeling music or feeling a certain way. What that means to me is it's an expression, trying to create the best music that we can, wherever that takes us. I don't think God would want us to water it down, and I don't think it needs to be. I think that if you strive to make the most beautiful music possible, people will identify with it and you don't have to try to accommodate them at all.
On the other hand, growing up in America I have a certain pop root in me, so I do appreciate melody, and I appreciate listening to something enjoyable, so maybe that will help to keep the music accessible enough. But I'm hoping I'll never try to make it accessible. I'm hoping that this project will always try to just make the most glorifying music, whatever that may be.
Tollbooth: So what happens if it ends up completely inaccessible? How do you feel about that?
Krueger: I would imagine unless God says differently, that would be God's will. I guess in that situation, that would mean that God wanted us to create art to glorify Him and not to lead a single soul in worship but just us and Him. I'm cool with that.
I love talking about this
psalters stuff. There are so many things going on with it, there are so
many thoughts and ideas. A big one, maybe the big one, is that we need
to feel again in this country. As Christians we need to feel our need for
Christ in our own lives and the needs of our brothers and sisters outside
of our inner circle, the people in the inner city, the people in other
countries. We need to feel their struggles, too. psalters is a project
intended to try and make us feel again a little bit more, try and really
just pour out everything, like the original psalters did. Through pouring
out everything, maybe we'll learn to actually feel the pain of our brothers
and sisters who are dying every day, who are depressed and alone in some
third story room, or in some nursing home. It's a hope that our music would
be so honest and so intense that God will use it to open up hearts in this
country to not be so numb.
psalters first release in over two years and the first one ever with any semblance of their current lineup is here! Sya A Ku can be purchased through Burnt Toast Vinyl. One of the most unique packages around consists of a cloth bag that holds the CD and with a detachable chime people can bring with them to concerts to join directly into the creation of the Psalters performance.