By James Stewart
One of the most highly acclaimed albums released in the British Christian marketplace this year is the latest release from long-running band Split Level. This album marks something of a change of direction for the three-piece, bringing in a rawer alternative rock sound coupled with hooky melodies and the band's trademark vocal harmonies. Recorded with the help of U.S.-based Organic Records, glo.bal looks set to launch the band into the top ranks of the Christian music market.
The band has been around for a number of years now, and I asked founding member and main songwriter Adrian Thompson to bring me up to date on the band's history.
"Split Level started playing at Christian events in Ireland-church halls, coffee bars, youth clubs, schools, etc.-back in the 80s. We were then invited to do a week of concerts at Spring Harvest [the biggest evangelical teaching conference in the UK] which led to invitations to Greenbelt and to other events on mainland England. This put serious pressure on the amount of time we had available to do concerts. As a result we really felt we needed to make the move to England. The move had a tremendous emotional effect on us, and our drummer moved back to Ireland within a couple of months of being in England. This started the changes in line-up and through various circumstances we had an ever changing line-up until the early 90s. The line-up changes had a lot of effect because we were never able to settle with a sound or be consistent with bookings, recording contracts, or anything. If we hadn't had all the changes, I believe things would have developed much bigger and quicker for us."
The change in line-up wasn't the only reason for the band to move from full-time back to part-time. "The reality of being full-time is that it's very draining and demanding financially. Being part-time provides a little bit of security when you're still trying to punt around for gigs. Our experience of being full-time left us with a #5,000 overdraft because of unpaid fees for events and tours. This, along with the changes in line-up, made the move to being a part-time band inevitable. It hasn't all been bad. As a matter of fact it gives us our individuality and a lot more impetus whenever we come together as a band."
The mention of changing sounds piqued my curiosity, and I wondered what styles the band had been through. "When we first came over to England, we were playing a brash form of new-wave pop and starting to use the earlier U2 style of playing. It then developed into the more stadium rock feel of the bigger Joshua Tree sound with a more straightforward rock feel underneath. Our current style is much drier with no delay on the guitars and a live room drum sound, instead of processed effected drums. Overall it is brasher with the guitar sounding more brittle. We have never gone out to emulate a style, but it normally just evolves the way you hear it, with a little bit of fine tuning from producers in the studio."
Despite the changing line-up and sounds, the band did manage to make a number of recordings, including one, Boomerang, which won the band awards and recognition in the European market. But there was still a considerable gap between the release of Boomerang and the recent glo.bal. Much of the reason for the delay was record company discussions; the band looked into various options open to them and eventually settled with Organic Records. I wondered how the connection with Organic Records had come about. "A few years ago we were asked to be involved in the Christmas Rock Tour with Steve Taylor and Guardian. On the UK leg we met a guy who was then Guardian's manager who really enjoyed the shows and wanted to help in whatever way he could. He started punting our music about the different record companies in America and then eventually called through with a deal which he felt was suitable for us from Organic's mother label, Pamplin. The deal in itself would have been great, but the commitment required to make it work was more than any one of us could really afford over the period of time it was required for. There would have been a great deal at risk for all of us involved, which would not only have affected the band but also our families. As a result we turned that offer down, but a follow-through offer came from Organic a couple of months later." This deal has enabled the band to work with producer Rick Elias and engineer Russ Long, with whom they'd wanted to work with for some time. The album moves away from the stadium rock and celtic influenced albums recorded earlier to "more of a mainstream alternative sound," according to Thompson.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the band's popularity means that they must fit into the cozy Christian subculture with nice "inspirational" lyrics. But that would be wrong, or so the band hopes. "We don't think that our lyrics fit easily into the CCM market. There are a lot of issues which Christian artists have never addressed and like to avoid, but we feel that there are a lot of people on the fringes of Christianity who need reassurance that they are not the only people who feel hurts, that they are not the only people who sometimes feel that they have got it wrong. Christianity is about being honest, and we believe that we have got to go deeper than just the surface lyrics." Certainly the band is not afraid to stand up for these beliefs as can be seen in the song "Twister" from glo.bal where Thompson openly proclaims "sometimes I doubt, too."
The band has also been known to deal with issues that many would regard as political. A case in point is the song "Call Me White, Call Me Black," the title track of a recent EP. "'Call Me White' isn't so much a political stance as a Christian stance in that we are all one in God's eyes-we aren't separated by color or country of origin. The only difference is between those who have committed to follow Him and those who haven't. There are a lot of issues which are down as political but which actually are Christian in essence, and these should be addressed as such. I believe if Christians were open about the teachings of Jesus and the principles which are taught in the Bible, then we would have a lot more to discuss with our non-Christian friends and have greater influence in society."
I asked Thompson whether he thought of the band as a ministry. "I believe it depends on what you would define as a ministry. The aim of the band is to make Christians think about who they are, where they are going, and at the same time to put positive music forward. We don't make an altar call at our concerts because we feel there is too much emotion involved in music. However we have never turned people away from talking about Christianity, and we have often found, especially in clubs, that just our attitude and the way we conduct ourselves open a lot of doors, even without preaching."
Thompson is an executive with one of the UK's largest Christian record companies. I wondered what his perspective was on the divide between the two marketplaces. "This is a very difficult question to answer as there are still two distinct markets-Christian and mainstream. I long for the day when Christians can go into HMV, Our Price, or an independent record store and just purchase the Christian albums they want. This obviously is to the great annoyance of the Christian book trade, but at the end of the day this is where people buy music and this is where most Christians frequent rather than Christian bookstores. There needs to be a lot of bigotry removed from the non-Christian music scene to enable this to happen and to trade on fair terms with everyone else. We would love to be able to see a joining together of Christian and mainstream markets, but it's a long way off."
Split Level are looking forward to spending some time promoting the album in the USA next year, and their live show is well worth attending, for the passionate nature of their approach as much as for the music.