The Gang's Back For A Bold New Ride
by Dan Macintosh
Daniel Amos' new album, MotorCycle, is a comeback of sorts. For one thing, original guitarist Jerry Chamberlain is back in the fold. Also, eight of the original letters to the band's name reappear on the new project to make it the first album since '84's Vox Humana to be released under the full name Daniel Amos. Perhaps, best of all, this project signals a return of sorts, to the Beatlesque, anything-and-everything-goes musical setting that the band hasn't explored since Horrendous Disc.
"Musically," explains lead singer and primary composer Terry Taylor, "we kind of went'back to our roots which is not country music but musical diversity. And we are celebrating that. You can hear that in the music.
The idea of MotorCycle is about traveling. When you see the artwork for the album, you see that it's a map, and it's sort of this travelogue. But it's also the idea of cycle. It's coming back to where you started. And there was a real sense on my part that that's what we were doing. Especially With Jerry coming back in and this whole experience of working together again, 'like we did in the beginning."
The album is filled with references to musical styles which were first introduced in the creative period of the 60s, but it is far more than just another trip down memory lane.
"Those are our roots," continues Taylor. "We can't deny that. There's where we were inspired you know, the British Invasion. I mean there are other things in this record besides the Beatles influence - you can hear The Stones, you can near The Who, you can hear a lot of different things, but that's the kind of music we grew up with. With this record we asked ourselves, 'What are we going to do this time?' 'Well, let's fall back on what we know best.' And it turned out the way it did. Whatever it is."
While Taylor, guitarist Jerry Chamberlain, and drummer Ed McTaggart may have grown-up listening to the great bands of the 60s, guitarist Greg Flesch and bassist Tim Chandler didn't have the same benefit of first-hand experience.
"In a strange way," explains Chandler, "I sort of caught on to some of the 60s things filtered through a lot of other bands."
"See, if we'd done an album based on Tim's musical references," continues Taylor, pointing out, with more than a little sarcasm, the band members' age differences, "we'd have done a disco album."
"We didn't stop listening to records after the 60s," clarifies Taylor. "It's important to all of us that the band is vital, it's alive, and it's not recycling our old stuff. We said before, we never wanted to be an oldies band. A lot of people put the pressure on us for that. They wanted to keep us wherever we were in those early days. We knew that to survive we had to go on and experiment and remain fresh and alive. We had to be doing something that people could relate to musically."
Daniel Amos has always been able to match its musical experimentation with thoughtful and provoking lyrics: Some of its ideas have come from literary sources such as "The Double" from Doppelganger, which was influenced by the short story of the same name by the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or by everyday events like Terry Taylor's son playing little league baseball in the new album's "Buffalo Fields." Literature is still a big factor in how the lyrics are written for Daniel Amos albums.
"I think all of life sort of seeps in," suggests Taylor. "Whatever you're experiencing: my family life, my life with my friends. You know, the one song says, 'In the books that I read/In the air that I breathe/You live and move and have your being.' The idea as a songwriter is to remain open to every experience of life, and that's always going to have an influence on what you're trying to say, and what you're trying to communicate."
Taylor describes MotorCycle as a celebration of life. There is also the recurring theme that the perceived losers in this life will become winners in the next world. They are included in the invitation to the table for food and fellowship. A third and broader picture which may be drawn from the lyrics is that of seeing beyond the mundane and ordinary experiences of life, and glimpsing the heavenly and supernatural. Sometimes the supernatural can even be seen within the ordinary.
For many, Daniel Amos' bold mixing of musical creativity and lyrical depth can only be heard on record. But in a live setting, Daniel Amos takes on a whole new dimension. The songs are stripped down to the raw basics. The group plays with both spontaneous spirit and refined precision. And the band's true camaraderie shines, even if it takes the form of a full on brawl when Chamberlain, Flesch and Taylor try to push each other off the stage.
"We want to play," says Taylor of the band's inability to support a full touring schedule. "It's just hard to play. We're all responsible citizens. We have families, kids and wives, rent to pay, and that sort of thing. It's not like the old days where you could go out on a wing and a prayer, and sort of go, 'We'll struggle to get by.' And to do it right, you've got to get trucks, you've got to get people to move equipment. There's a whole process involved, and it's not easy for us to afford. But I think we'd all love to play live. I know sometimes I really miss it. Plus, you tend to romanticize a little bit--being on the road. The good things rise to the top. But it was tough. It was a hard life. So I think if we did it," continues Taylor, "we'd do it sort of in spurts. Fly-in kind of gigs, or whatever.
"There's something about touring that is great," enthuses Taylor, "because a band gains momentum. It's very difficult to rehearse and rehearse, and then go play one gig, and then don't do it for months on end. And there's something just incredibly satisfying hitting that last run towards the finish line, and you've just jelled, and you know exactly what you're doing. You don't stand there thinking, 'Oh, do I go to a C or a D here?' And I miss that a lot."
With guitarist chamberlain rejoining the band, one would think that combining his minimalist pop style with Greg Flesch's otherworldly playing would be quite a bit more difficult than deciding which chord to play, and would ultimately be an arranger's nightmare. But as the two axe men explain it, this was not such a big problem.
"It's because we play kind of differently," explains Flesch, "that we don't often get in each other's way. If something happens, you think, 'Oh, that's perfect for- Jerry,' I'll stop playing."
"We sort of like balance each other out," adds Chamberlain.
Any worshippers of guitar heroes will have a hard time getting either of Daniel Amos' guitarists to name their string bending influences. When asked, Chamberlain paused long enough for Taylor to chime in the name Ike Turner. To which Chandler added, "Ike Turner and Roy Rogers."
Yet Chamberlain still tried to give a shaight answer. "It's hard to say, It's anything that's happened from the 60s till now."
"You're influenced by every guitar player that's ever lived? Is that what you're trying to say?" asks Taylor in mock shock. Well, I think you get the idea where this line of questioning was going.
To an extent, Daniel Amos is back to being a guitar band. Even though keyboardist Rob Watson returns as well, to contribute to the band's projects, MotorCycle, much like most of Daniel Amos' bread and butter', is straight ahead guitar based rock & roll, maintaining the quirky novelty feel of old favorites like "Horrendous Disc" and "New Car." By sticking to what makes it feel good musically and lyrically the band has been kept off mainstream Christian radio. Despite being a group which must rely on sporadic touring and word of mouth, Daniel Amos has attained a status of love and respect among the alternative Christian music audience.
"There's a lyric on the song 'MotorCycle,'" says Taylor, "that says, 'We were still honest/even when no one was Iooking.' And I think that's so true about the band. We've always tried to be real in what we express in our records. And part of being real is being truthful about doubts and fears and all these things. And that doesn't make good radio.
"But it touches lives. And the kind of letters I get are astounding in how a person will express something so personal to me. I've had people write me who were terminally ill because they heard something on our record that was honest enough to say something to them. It wasn't just some typical cliche that they hear everyday on the radio that doesn't do anything for them. That doesn't apply to their situation whatsoever, because they're in the grip of some profound experience in their life, that all this garbage over here says nothing to. So they're hearing something that says something to them, and that is our ministry."
We're living in a time where some Christian musicians are finally starting to make some money from their craft. With the Amy Grants and Michael W. Smith's of the world getting songs on the pop charts, it gives hope to other artists trying to do the same thing. But Daniel Amos would be surprised if it had a hit song in 1993.
"We're not good at selling ourselves," admits Taylor. "We're not good promoters. And there is that side of the business - that machinery. And there are a lot of artists that are good at it. They know how to get the right agent or lawyer, and they make a lot of phone calls and talk to people. But my satisfaction comes from making the music."
And with as much as Daniel Amos has been able to say about God and the nature of God's grace over the last twenty years or so, Taylor and band are still baffled when it comes to understanding our Creator. Daniel Amos is a band Which has set its goal much higher than being successful in this subculture we call contemporary Christian music; its goal is to take us on a journey that shares its sense of awe. Much like the musical trip of MotorCycle, Daniel Amos itself is about that which brings us a little closer to a fuller understanding, as well as a better appreciation, of the One who made us. Daniel Amos is about hope.
"Part of my walk with God," explains Taylor, "has gone beyond the early days of 'Jesus My Pal' and 'Truckin' for Jesus' and all of that Jesus Movement that was happening, and going on and finding out about God's holiness and God's mystery. And again when you talk about the mystery of God, there's that knee-jerk reaction, 'Well, how can you say that? Don't you know who God is?' And I know a speck of who God is, a little bit. And I've just been astounded in recent years by how little I do know. And maybe l will absolutely not know what he's like until I stand before him."
This cyclical tour with Daniel Amos has been a long, strange, and wonderful trip. Perhaps, what makes Daniel Amos great is not that they've tried to give us all the answers, but they have had the nerve to ask the right questions. The group has gone from the relative security of truckin' with the Jesus People crowd, to the exposed and vulnerable transportation of a MotorCycle.
While it may be more popular and acceptable for contemporary Christian artists to take Christians on an imaginary trip to the Streets of Gold, Daniel Amos continues to carry the faithful few on the bumpy, always adventurous road less traveled, offering only a meaningful grip on life and faith in the real world. Theirs is the kind of journey that just makes a leather jacket more appropriate than a three-piece suit. And good sunglasses are a complete necessity, because as often as not, you're likely to be riding into the sun.