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the Moment in Minneapolis:
An Interview with Michael Pritzl of The Violet Burning
Saturday, Aug. 30, 2003 • The New Union Club in Minneapolis, Minn.
by Greg Adams
Muffled bars of The Gravity Show’s “Fabulous Like You” leak out of the open backstage door of The New Union in Minneapolis during The Violet Burning’s 7 p.m. sound check. A handful of eager fans stand waiting at the front door of the club. It’s a fantastically warm and sunny Labor Day weekend evening, the type no winter-hardened Wisconsinite or Minnesotan would want to waste cooped up in the confines of a dark club. Most Midwesterners are either grilling in their backyards or cruising the lakeshores one last time for the season. But these music lovers have a burning desire to get caught up in the momentMichael Pritzl (a.k.a. The Violet Burning / The Gravity Show) is making a rare live appearance well north of his annual Cornerstone shows in Illinois. He’s here to help promote The Gravity Show’s Fabulous Like You and The Violet Burning’s This is the Moment, both Northern Records releases.
Once the doors finally open, the basement starts buzzing with ticket-buying couples and New Union coffeehouse regulars. The distorted rumblings of the opening band upstairs vibrates the ceiling. After sound check and quickly grabbing a bite to eat, Pritzl emerges from a backstage door and sits down with The Phantom Tollbooth’s Greg Adams to talk about the new album, which leads to musings on worship trends, file sharing and the timelessness of the Gospel.
Greg Adams: The new album (This is the Moment), is pretty striking and a little shockingit’s white. Nearly every other Violet Burning album has been black. Was this a conscious effort to present a “kinder, gentler” Violet Burning?
Michael Pritzl: We looked at probably 40-50 different album cover ideas. The one that Eric (Campuzano), Andy (Prickett), and myself ended up liking the most was the one we ended up picking. Then Eric suggested that we make the whole tray white, because it would look cool. Northern Records is really into making great art and great music, and as a record label, they’re really wonderful. It’s as much them as it is us. We really wanted the art to suit the album, and I think it does.
Adams: The imagery on the new album, as compared to some of your other records, is a lot brighter. In some of your earlier albums, “light” and “love” seem to be something reached for, and on This is the Moment, you seem to be singing from in the midst of them. What has transpired to make that escalation upward?
Pritzl: I think I’ve always sung from the midst of it. A true artist will reflect the whole of their worldview, including their faith, including their loss. A great artist will write about the fullness of his or her life experience, and the life experiences of those around them, with the dividing linethe exceptionbeing sin. So if I was to get up there and say, “Yeah, let’s all get drunk, and that’s great!” Then that would be the dividing line, obviously that’s sin. That’s somewhere that I don’t think the Bible gives us the right to go. But everywhere else within the Bible we can go, because that’s how God made us, and He delights in those things. I don’t know that, as an artist, I’ll ever fully reach the place where I have written about all there is to write about.
Adams: Is the touring prompted by the new album, or did you feel the need to get on the road again?
Pritzl: We’ve been touring more in Europe than in America. With our new deal with Northern Records, they assured us they were going to make the distribution happen for us in America. We then said we’ll go out and tour in America to help them. We’re trying to form a team with Northern. They are doing what they said they would do, and we’re going to do what we said that we would do. Hopefully, it will help us both be successful.
Adams: As far as a sense of worship at the concerts, how do European audiences compare to American audiences?
Pritzl: It seems that when we’ve hit a city one, two, three times, and they start to get our music, and begin to know it and love it, then you get to this place where all of the sudden the whole show becomes not just about the band and the audience, but about all of us together. In Europe, in certain countries or cities, there is that element. But its in certain cities in America now, toothe other night we were in Charlotte, N.C., and any time the band was quiet enough, I could hear probably 50 percent of the crowd singing along with us. That’s wonderful. When people really enjoy our music and buy and start to know the songs, then it becomes more like a church service than a rock concert.
Adams: Who is in the band on the road with you right now?
Pritzl: My friend Daryl Dawson, Jason Myes, and Doug Heckman.
Adams: Were they put together just for this tour?
Pritzl: Yeah, Daryl Dawson has been touring with me for a while. Sometimes we only bring three guys, so Doug doesn’t always come with us, but he does come with us regularly. Jason is filling in for Sam [West], who couldn’t make this tour.
I love to record with Andy [Prickett] and [Herb] Grimaud, Jr., and Sam [West]. Lonnie Tubbs was a wonderful collaborator and musician...Michael Misiuk did a couple of records with me. There are so many great guys out there. Lonnie’s brothers (Scott and Shawn Tubbs) did one record with us, it was great. Glen Pierce played on our very first record, and he’s the guitar player for Michael W. Smith now.
I love that I get the opportunity to make records and also that I get to invite other musicians who are great to join me in it.
Adams: You’ve been on the road for weeks now, and I know it’s a tough life. What things do you do on the road to keep yourself mentally, spiritually and physically healthy?
Pritzl: We pray together. The group of guys I have with me is awesome, they’re wonderful guys. I’ve had the great privilege to work with loads of great, Godly, Christian men. We pray, we try to eat well. It’s important that the team of people that goes with me is easy going, that they are nice to the fans, that they’re not egotistical. Not that they can’t be professional, because I want them to be pro. I want them to be great musicians, I want them to know their parts. But also, I expect them to work hard and just have fun. We’ve been out for almost three weeks now, and it’s been a lot of fun. The band’s been great. We had one night off yesterday. That was our first night off in about 13 days. But, it’s all good.
Adams: At Sonshine 2003 (in Willmar, Minn.), I got the chance to talk a little bit with the members of the Rock ‘n Roll Worship Circus, and they mentioned The Violet Burning’s Strength as an album that opened their eyes to combining rock music with worship-oriented lyrics. How did that marriage happen for you?
Pritzl: Every record I’ve ever made has worship on it. I can’t really live without worship in my life.
People have asked me, “What’s the balance between performance and leading worship?” For me, when I met Jesus Christ, and even when I began to understand the cross, like Paul. Paul resolves to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Here he’s this great theologian of his day. Knows the Bible forward and backward. Pharisee of Pharisees. He’s a key religious leader, and he tosses it all away because he wants to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified. For me, it’s the same thing when I look at and study the cross. I have articles where doctors pick apart that type of death penalty, the death on the cross, and you start to realize what Jesus did for us. It doesn’t make me want to perform, it makes me want to worship. That’s why you’ll find within most of our records, we have that psalm-like thing that happens in our music. Gosh, we’re glad that we’re allowed to do that. But I don’t think we’re any different than anyone before us throughout the centuries and centuries of Christianity who expressed their faith and their honor and their love for God in the music of their day. Within American contemporary Christian music, we may have been one of the first ones to do that after the ‘80s. But I certainly don’t think that we’re better than any other of our forefathers who were intelligent, gifted men and women of music.
We’re glad that people like Rock ‘N Roll Worship Circus, and even Delirious? have humbly shared with us the influence we’ve had on them. There’s a differenceyou can see itbetween a band like Rock ‘N Roll Worship Circus and Delirious? versus some of the others who are trying to jump on the worship bandwagon, because that’s what sells. It’s either born straight out of your heart, or it’s not a real thing.
Adams: The earlier Violet Burning CDs (Strength included) are selling for sometimes astronomical amounts on eBay. Has there ever been talk of rereleasing any of those?
Pritzl: There is, but I feel the record labels that we’ve been on, with the exception of Vineyard Music Group--they’ve always been fair and always paid us on time. A number of the record labels that we’ve been on have never given us any money. So, we’ll see what the deal is. I’m sure they’re not going to pop up a bunch of money for us, so I’m sure they’ll work something so we can take care of the fans.
Adams: I was browsing a secular record store the other day and was really amazed at how many artists I saw mixed in that you would also find at a Christian book store. Was that integration something you had ever envisioned when you first got into this, and is it a good thing?
Pritzl: I think it’s a great thing. You should be able to find good music in a store that sells music, whether that’s good main stream music or good Christian music. I’ve been raised by a lot of books by Francis Schaeffer. Art and the Bible is one of them. Francis Schaeffer, who probably was one of the foremost theologians of our time, really had a wonderful understanding of God’s word and the fullness of art and music; of what qualifies as good art or good music or bad art and bad music. It seems that so much of what happens in both mainstream and Christian is bad, and is average. If I was in school, and I got 5 out of 10 answers right, I would fail. But if I’m an artist, and I have 2 good songs out of 12, I could be hailed as a wonderful artist.
Ultimately, my favorite bands are the ones who make great albums. I love having one good single or two good singles, but when you make a whole great album, ultimately, that’s what we strive for. I write lots of songs, so there are lots of songs that never see the light of day, because they’re just not very good. [Laughs.]
Adams: [Laughs.] As an artist and performer, how do you judge whether the audience is coming with you on a worship journey?
Pritzl: I don’t judge it. Most of the time once we start playing, I forget who’s there. I’m into the music and into the sounds going on around me and focusing on my maker. It’s in between songs that I realize fans are there too.
Adams: So the audience reaction isn’t necessarily your judge of a good show?
Pritzl: No, not at all. I’ve had some average shows and had people tell us that we were their new favorite band. God bless them!
Adams: I’m from a city of about 2,000 people in northwest Wisconsin. We drove about 2 hours to get here. I would never have this chance to see or interview you here if it weren’t for connections made through the Internet. How has the Internet helped you connect?
Pritzl: The Internet has been a wonderful thing for us, because we are independent. It helps people know we’re out there. There have been people who thought we stopped making records after 1993. But, no, we’ve made eight records now, including The Gravity Show. The Internet has been a great blessing for us. File sharing is a whole other issue. It hurts. For me, if I really love Wilco, and I don’t buy the new Wilco record but rather I burn it then share it with 10 other people, it may help Wilco’s popularity, but their record label would probably drop them. And if their record company drops them, I’m not going to hear anymore music. Ultimately, it hurts me in the long run. What we usually do is if people don’t have enough money at our shows, we’re glad to help themif they have $5 instead of $15, or if they have $3 instead of $5. We’re not really here for the money.
Adams: I know Robert Smith and The Cure are a big influence on the band.
Adams: I don’t know if he’s saved or what type of relationship he may have with God. But if you were to make a compilation disc of Violet Burning material to give to him to show him the hope you’ve found, what would you choose?
Pritzl: If I could give it to Robert, I would have to know what he, as a music fan, likes. He’s obviously a music fan. I’m not his friend, so I wouldn’t know what he’s a fan of. What would you give him? [Laughs.]
Adams: I think I would give him the entire _Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart_ album. To me, it’s a masterpiece of worship.
Pritzl: Wow, that’s awesome. I don’t know if he would relate to that. The reason that touches your heart and my heart is because we do believe. Now, I think if maybe he heard The Gravity Show, and then maybe heard our new record, if we could maybe ease him into it, then it would probably give a little more of a hook. Who knows, maybe God is dealing with him right now.
Adams: You are the first person I’ve ever heard mention The Chameleons UK (in a short segement from the Violet Burning video, Film Show). I love them. Strange Times is an amazing album. Any other semi-obscure bands you return to quite often?
Pritzl: I love music, and I love so much music. We give a lot of stuff away in our fan club website, including recordings that we think have been really impactful to us, both mainstream recordings and Christian records, and classic recordings. If people want to learn more about that part of us, they could figure it out from there. It’s far too much to mention. Yeah, Chameleons UK is a wonderful band. It’s interesting, the guy who signed them is named Tommy Zutaut. He signed them to Geffen Records, and then nothing really happened for them in the United States. But Tommy Zutaut is the same guy who signed Guns ‘N Roses.
It’s interesting, as an A&R guy for a record label, that he had the taste to see the greatness of a band like Chameleons UK, and the greatness of a band like Guns ‘N Roses. One obviously became more popular than the other, but it’s interesting to see that he had such diverse musical taste and could see the quality in both those different styles of music.
Adams: With digital technology today, portable recorders, etc., anybody and everybody can and has made a CD. Your albums have great production work, and a lot of thought goes into that. What’s your favored approach to recording your music?
Pritzl: The last two records, The Gravity Show and This is the Moment, we made just like everybody else’s. The difference is that Andy Prickett and myself have made a lot more records than most people.
Just because you have a home recording system doesn’t mean you know how to make a record or produce a band. We’ve had the great privilege to make lots of records, and because of that, hopefully we can make them sound great, and make the songs great. Ultimately for us, it’s about the songthe song is the king. For people who are learning, really the best way to learn is to do it, but also to really study music and study records that sell millions of copies. Listen to how they sound. Listen to how they are mixed. Listen to it loud. Listen to it quiet. Did you go to college?
Pritzl: And then you got work out of college?
Pritzl: A lot of times the best way to learn is to actually do it. You can read about it, but when you actually do it firsthand, that’s when you go, “Oh, that’s why this sounds this way.”
Adams: Speaking of learning, I read on the extended interview posted on www.HMmag.com that you are ordained.
Pritzl: I’ve been ordained for a couple of years.
Adams: How did that progression happen?
Pritzl: I am of the belief, scripturally, that God ordains people. You can go to seminary and study and be ordained that way. That’s one ordination. At the same time, there’s John the Baptist, there’s Elijah, there’s Peter, there’s Paul. There’s varying degrees of learned men. There are fishermen who obviously were ordained to preach the Gospel. I’ve been a Christian for a couple of decades, and I study the Bible regularly. There’s still so much more for me to learn, and I want to learn and grow. For me, it came about that a pastoral friend of mine recognized the call of God over my life and wanted to bless that and, hence, ordain me as a minister of the Gospel. It’s a great honor and a great privilege. Even prior to being ordained, I baptized people, because they wanted me to baptize them. Now I can actually do it legally in the eyes of the state. Historically, our faith is really in the eyes of God and not in the eyes of the institution. That’s what makes Christianity so wonderful and radical, because it is not about an organization but rather about a living God that we all can knowfreelywhether we go to school or we don’t go to school.
Adams: What’s your most common prayer?
Pritzl: Oh, man...“Lord, have mercy on me,” is a pretty daily, regular one...grace, mercy, seeking that. I desire to see the church worldwide committed to the Gospel and the truth of the Gospel. I get the great privilege of seeing so many different types of churches as we travel around the world, the different denominations, and the different philosophical churches where you have the “Gen X,” and then two years later, the “Gen Y.” I thought 40 years needed to pass before another generation happens! Then you have the postmodern idealists, you have the Emergent Church. You can go on and on with all the various movements. But ultimately, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
The Bible is really clear, “There is nothing new under the sun.” When we in America want to jump on what is “the new move of God,” it seems every month we’re trying to find something. And really it all goes back to the BibleJesus Christ and Him crucified.
The most successful churches I see are the ones that are committed to Jesus and to what He did in laying his life down for us, and to Him being risen again on the third day; that if we believed in Him, we would have eternal life. It’s that simple. It’s interesting too, that all the wisdom of menthe Bible is real clearthat what seems like foolishness to men is the very strength of God, which is the cross. It’s interesting that so many church movements lately are getting away from that, all because they want their churches to grow. The smartest people look at historydo you think that Paul was any smarter than me? A lot of times we think that because we live now, that we’re smarter than those who lived before us. But, come on, are we really? We need to have a little more respect for what the Orthodox Gospel is, and what’s taught to us in the Bible. Those kind of Christians, are the ones that have the most fulfilling relationship with Jesus, and those type of churches also are the ones that are churning out true disciples versus gaining an audience for a few months or a year, and then losing them.
I know that’s a lot to swallow,
there, but I’m thinking about writing a book about what my perspective
is on the church and art and worship. It seems there is a whole wave of
this type of philosophies that I mentioned. I feel bad. I feel like they’re