Interviewed by J. Robert Parks
Cornerstone 98 Festival
Terry Taylor has been one
of the most influential figures in Christian music for over twenty years.
From the groundbreaking days of Daniel Amos through the Swirling Eddies,
Lost Dogs and various solo projects, he has consistently made music that
was intelligent, beautiful, and deeply thought-provoking. Add in his numerous
production credits and the influence he's had on countless artists, and
Terry Taylor's impact on music and the Church far outstrips the relatively
little publicity he's received. The Phantom Tollbooth caught up
with Terry after his phenomenal Cornerstone
show last year to get his thoughts on history, songwriting, and growing older.
On the early days of Daniel Amos
On evolving as a band
On working with other bands
On what's important
On the early days of Daniel Amos
Tollbooth - I wanted to start with some historical questions. Take us back to what it was like in the seventies for you, when you were starting out in Daniel Amos? What were your hopes and your dreams and your goals? What did you hope would happen, what did you expect would happen?
Taylor - I think it was a combination of a lot of things. There was a growing sense on my part that the band was special, and that it was going to be fun to explore musical creativity with this band. And then, because of the Jesus Movement, there was this street people thing, with people taking guitars and playing little venues or going to churches and playing this music. It was suddenly like a revolution with Larry [Norman] and Randy [Stonehill].
We just wanted to be on the road. We wanted to go out and take the music to the people. There was this romantic aspect to the road-getting in that truck and heading across the country. Of course, back then, as a band, you didn't stay in hotels, you didn't have a contract. You stayed in people's homes, and that could be really great, or it could be really horrible. The night that I discovered how horrible it was was when I was laying in a bunk bed, and my knees were up under my chin. And I'm in this bed, and I hear the kids crying in the other room going, "Mommy, can't we sleep in our own beds?" And they're sniffing and they're sneezing and they're sick, and I'm laying in their bed.
And we didn't have roadies then. So we unloaded our own equipment, we set it up, we played the concert, we stayed and talked to the people, we loaded it back on, we took another hour to split the people up that were in our band at the different houses, we got a little bit of sleep, we got up the next morning to drive 800 miles somewhere else and do it all over again.
And we were happy to do it. We didn't feel like, "Oh, we're suffering here." But at the same time, we'd get in the middle of a tour and I would get ill because I wasn't getting enough sleep; or my voice would give out. When we finally decided to get a guy to book us and when we decided that we were going to request one room in a Motel 6, that was a big to-do. It caused an incredible amount of controversy.
Tollbooth - Were you guys the first to do that sort of thing?
Taylor - Well, I think Love Song might have been doing that before us. But we were kind of the next little group of people that came in, and I think in that grouping of people, we were the first people to do that.
If we had three hours, I could go into a lot of things we were the first to do. We were just out there on the front lines, trying to stay alive. But there was a deep sense that God was going to take care of us. I've gained wisdom over the years in knowing that God doesn't fill out your income tax form. You have to do that. And you have to be wise in your business dealings, and all of that. As the band became more aggressive in terms of wanting to sustain a career, we were just naive about a lot of things. We'd taken this attitude that God would provide. And He did, He did. But at the same time, there were certain mistakes that we made in our business dealings. But it was exciting, too. Playing at Calvary Chapel on a Saturday night with a packed crowd who is with you all the way was one of the most exhilarating, wonderful times of my life.
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On evolving as a band
Tollbooth - You guys took an incredible amount of flack when you made the transition from country gospel into a more rock sound. Can you talk about what that was like, the problems, but also the success of sort of being a trailblazer in that path.
Taylor - I think it's like Daniel Amos lost Texas but gained New York. It was rough in that some people make the mistake of taking the Christian music that they listen to and, if it doesn't appeal to them, it's not just that it doesn't appeal to their musical tastes; it's that they don't "bear witness" to it. You know what I'm saying? They don't sense the "anointing" upon it. So it takes on these very quasi-religious aspects to it where people are making pronouncements.
It was a very hard time in my life, because of circumstances that were pretty much beyond our control. We'd gone from Shotgun Angel to Horrendous Disk, but Horrendous Disk wasn't released for three years. And then when it finally was released, it came a week after Alarma. So here's a group that has been playing constantly on the road, is this incredibly, intensely, creative group of individuals that is evolving constantly. And the people who had come to our concerts knew what we were doing and that we were branching out. But the people that had sort of followed DA in the very early days but hadn't seen us in a few years were getting Horrendous Disk and Alarma and going, "What in the world is going on here?"
And in a way, I couldn't blame them for that. But what I found disturbing to me were the people . . . and I don't want to over-blow this thing and say that I've got stacks of mail from people who were disgruntled and thought I'd lost my first love. But there was enough of that. I would get these letters or an occasional person in a concert who would come up to me and go, "What's happened to you? Where's your first love, brother?"
Tollbooth - What would you say to people like that?
Taylor - Well I got to the point where I said, "I'd like to thank you for throwing up on me. Now can we talk?" There was a very emotional reaction to it and I was angry. But then I got to the place where I understood my own anger, and I understood why they were confused, and I tried to bring some degree of graciousness to it. But at the same time, I think sometimes people like that need a gentle pat on the shoulder, and some people need a kick in the butt. I think I tried to discern when my foot needed to come up and do its thing.
Tollbooth - You were one of the first people to really do a lot of visual stuff in your concerts, more than just playing. How'd that come about, and how did that develop over the years?
Taylor - In the early days, we were just four guys sitting on stools, and we were zany; we had a lot of humor in our music. And we decided to just have fun with it. The slide whistle always got a big laugh for some reason. If I brought one out right now, you'd just be rolling. And people seemed to really enjoy that; it was funky and loose, and people loved having fun. We never took ourselves that seriously, and that was just refreshing for everybody. That was what made Daniel Amos different.
So I think that was good for that time, but we had to grow. You can't stay the same or you'll never last. Sadly, for the fans of that kind of thing, they have to say good-bye at some point. They are either going to say good-bye to that kind of music or that kind of approach, or they're going to say good-bye to the band because the band won't last unless it evolves and goes on.
I think it's just always been in my blood to be visual about things. So we took the slide whistles and all that sort of stuff, and it evolved into what eventually was Doppelganger, which is much more serious and had some effects that people hadn't seen before.
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Tollbooth - How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years, or hasn't it?
Taylor - No, I think it changes in different ways. As you grow older, you see more of what's around you. You begin to understand more about what you don't know than what you do. I really believe God gives us the basics-salvation and what Christ did on the cross, the Gospel message, his resurrection, and being redeemed and saved by His blood. And then I think there's all these other things that come into our lives.
Well, part of my growth in the Lord has been the discovery that there's a certain degree of mystery, a certain degree of unknowingness that to me, is not repellent; it is an attractive thing because it says something about God's holiness. It's difficult to explain and articulate right here in this moment, but over the years I hope I've been able to get closer to what's real and what's transparent and something that we can all identify with-writing for the everyman about the experiences that I've had in my own life, the difficulties, the doubts, and exploring those aspects of our faith. And that it is a life of faith. That there is suffering in the world. That Christians are not immune from it, and we do suffer as Christ suffered. I think it's changed my outlook and the way I broach a particular subject.
In talking about the cross, for instance, I wrote "You Lay Down" for the new John Wayne record. I've always been shy about writing about the cross, not because I was ashamed of it, but because I thought there are so many wonderful, great songs about the cross. And I want to say it in the right way, and I want to say it in a fresh way, and I want to say it in a way that impacts.
Tollbooth - A lot of Christian artists that I've interviewed for the last several years have been in the business a long time. When I ask them what advice they have for younger bands, they often say, "Don't go the CCM route." I think I heard you say that a few years ago.
Taylor - I might have.
Tollbooth - Knowing what you know now, if you had to do it all over again, would you go that route or would you try to just go through mainstream music?
Taylor - I think if I hadn't gone through the experiences I experienced in CCM music, I wouldn't be writing what I'm writing today. The controversy of whether a band is Christian or whether a band happens to be Christian, or if you're a band first, that whole thing . . . I don't want to get into that at all.
Whatever that means, I think we are it. I think we're more of a Christian band than we were from the very beginning.
Tollbooth - Why would you say that?
Taylor - Because I think that in my mind now, I am writing to the church. I'm writing to members of the body of Christ, and that's sort of the skeleton of what I write. I'm also savvy enough in writing those songs that I know that I can play it for my next door neighbor and they'll appreciate it on that level. So that's one of those things you start doing in sort of a habitual way, and then it becomes just the way you operate without hardly being conscious of it.
Tollbooth - How is writing for video games and film different than writing for all the other projects that you do?
Taylor - If I go into to do a Daniel Amos or a Swirling Eddies record, I'm free to just sort of ... if Daniel Amos wanted to go do a polka record tomorrow, we could do it. And as a matter of fact, the Swirling Eddies have done a polka record! Lost Dogs is different because we decided from the very beginning that we would be more acoustic, a little bit of country, a little bit of blues, kind of hybrid thing. So I think that's a little bit different, and it's a little bit more restrictive. And I love restriction.
Tollbooth - Why?
Taylor - It gives you more direction. You have to write for a specific kind of situation, and I know that I'm confident in my ability to do that. When you create a record for yourself, you call the shots. When you're doing it for somebody else, they're hiring you to do something; and they have specific ideas, and you have to go with that and make that work. I just couldn't put "Outdoor Elvis" as the theme song for Moth Man. It just wouldn't quite work ... or maybe it would, now that I'm thinking about it. Actually it's the perfect thing for Moth Man. I'm glad I went through that little exercise there.
But you know what I'm saying. When they brought the claymation stuff in this game, they had some ideas of what the music might be like.
Tollbooth - Such as?
Taylor - Well, they thought this needs to be funky and loose, and maybe a horn kind of thing. And that helped me make the step. And I expect that whenever I'm hired by somebody, they're gonna have some ideas about what they think might be the musical direction. And so I took their basic ideas and then listened to some things I thought might be like that, especially the old Warner Bros. stuff that I really, really enjoyed. And instead of the Warner Bros. thing with a huge orchestra doing all these parts, I brought it down to a quartet or whatever, with a couple of horns; and this made it very loose and funky. It didn't make any difference if the drums were perfectly in synch, or the horns were perfect to every beat because it was just this earthy, clay stuff. And I think it was successful.
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On working with other bands
Tollbooth - You have produced and nurtured a slew of young bands over the last ten, fifteen years. What responsibilities, if any, do you feel today to new bands that are coming up that you work with?
Taylor - I feel a tremendous obligation to them and anyone that has the slightest desire to talk to me about what they've been through, or what I've been through, and potentially what they may be going through, or just want to talk about life in general. I love nothing more. I think that with this position I've taken as A & R for KMG, it affords me an opportunity to form a relationship with a band. And put in those positions, it's going to afford me more of an opportunity to really be able to pass on a little bit of wisdom that I've garnered over the years, and also learn from them as well.
Tollbooth - How did the KMG thing come about?
Taylor - Well, I had had a relationship with Frontline Records for a number of years, and there was a guy there that worked there named Kent Songer. We've kept somewhat in contact over the years. I think Kent, having the twisted little sense of humor that he has, thought, "Wouldn't it be something if we announced to the industry that Terry Taylor was doing A & R for the new KMG records?" And so he offered me the job. I thought, hey, why not? Let's give it a shot and see how it goes.
Tollbooth - In the breakdown of your month, how much time is spent in your own projects, and how much time is spent in work for them?
Taylor - It's a difficult balancing act, but I sort of took the job at a time when a lot of things were happening. Surfonics was moving along.
Tollbooth - That came about before that then?
Taylor - Well, Kent first asked me if I would produce this Surfonics record, and he didn't have any details about a new label at that point. But as time went on and I was beginning to write songs for the project, Kent asked, "What do you think about an A & R job?" So that all came together, and then, of course, my solo project came up. So I've been extremely busy, and then I've been doing A & R work on the Insyderz. I've been doing a lot of flying, which is not my favorite thing, but that's part of the job.
Tollbooth - You have, at least to my mind, some of the most devoted and fanatical fans of any artist I know. They have this connection with you. Why do you think that is?
Taylor - Well, you'd probably have to ask them as individuals.
Tollbooth - Ah, I was afraid you would give that answer (laughs).
Taylor - Yeah, I think I would probably run the risk of sounding a little disingenuous or ego-maniacal if I said, "because I'm such a wonderful person, that I'm irresistible, that I'm charming."
Tollbooth - You don't have to answer the question.
Taylor - Oh, no, it's not that I'm trying to avoid the question, it's just that I think it is an individual thing, and I think people discover ... I mean, I've set certain goals for myself in terms of what I write. And those are like letters that go out to people that you don't really know-you have a long-distance sort of relationship. People are receiving your recent letter in which you're opening your heart and saying, "Hey, this happened to me recently, and this is what I thought about in this situation about my relationship with my friends, or my relationship with the Lord; or isn't this thing with what's happening in India a drag, and what does this mean for all of us?" Or whatever. Any number of issues. And I think people may have a sense that this is a letter from a friend. They feel that they know me because of that. I think that that's the bond, and that's special. That's very meaningful to me, and I want to cultivate that.
But I'm also a person who loves solitude and likes the idea of sort of being alone in my own world but then, at the same time, I crave human contact. So I have a certain degree of stand-offishness in a situation like Cornerstone, for instance, where I'm just walking down the road and people are coming up to me. At the same time, I have this other thing in me that's going, "Oh, you people are lovely and wonderful." So I've got this turmoil going on, and that's just who I am, for whatever reason. Maybe that combination has created a certain kind of art for people.
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On what's important
Tollbooth - The church has obviously changed a lot in the last twenty years, and yet, still, lots of thing are the same. You say you write more to people in the church now. What sorts of things do you want to speak to them? What are some of the issues that you think need to be addressed?
Taylor - I think I might have to give you a short answer, but it's not because I'm trying to wrap it up. It's because I think it all comes down to the basic stuff for living. A lot of Christians live as though tomorrow the big thing will happen for them. God will give them that great promotion, or God will give them their dream house, or whatever it may be. I've found in my own life that we find God in the nuts and bolts of our day-to-day lives. It's in the humdrum stuff.
That's why I wrote a song called, "Grace is the Smell of Rain." Grace isn't just some sort of concept floating out there. It's saying, if it rains today, there is God's grace. If there's sunshine, there is God's grace. God's grace is in that person that you're meeting there. Can you see God in that face? In the face of that stranger? Does he see it in your face? If you can set that as your goal day to day, that God is bringing people into your life, because it's about people. Bringing people into your life that you can find something of what God wants to say to you in them. It makes that day the most adventurous day you can experience. It's not out there somewhere. It's going to be right here. Because we may not have tomorrow.
I'm hoping that my songs will more succinctly bring that to the table every time. That will be the heart of it; it'll revolve around that truth. That God is in the here and now, we're redeemed, the basic Gospel message. Then love God with all that you are, love your neighbor as yourself. It's not getting away from that into deeper things, it's getting to that. That's the fight that we need to fight. That's simple faith.