Talking ’80s Christian metal with Electric Jesus‘ Chris White and Daniel Smith
The new film from director Chris White, Electric Jesus, tells the story of an ’80s Christian heavy metal band, 316, and their struggles, trials, and travails trying to make it in a world in which Christians fear metal and metalheads aren’t exactly fond of Christians. It’s a heartfelt, really truly honest movie that finds new angles in following a struggling band on their first-ever tour, with fantastic performances both in the acting and the music which makes up so much of the film.
It helps that the music of Electric Jesus was written by Daniel Smith of indie rockers Danielson and sounds just like it could be found in the bins next to Stryper, Barren Cross, and Holy Soldier’s output. The songs will lodge themselves in your brain pretty readily, and I’ve definitely added one or two to some recent playlists.
I spoke with director White and composer Smith ahead of Electric Jesus‘ upcoming screening as part of the KC Filmfest International, which takes place April 12-18.
Chris White: Writing Jesus, my goal was to write a coming-of-age rock and roll movie and there are so many of those, and I love just about every single film that would be called that. I love the films. I love the scores. I love the songs. It’s just one of my favorite kind of movies, so I wanted to make one and the only kind of a rock band movie I don’t think had ever been made was one about Christian rock and, specifically, Christian hair metal. I grew up in the ’80s and I was a kid in a Christian youth group–a Southern Baptist youth group in the deep South during ’84-’86. The heyday of or the blossoming of Christian hair metal was when I was right in the thick of it.
I wasn’t exclusively only listening to Christian music, but I listened to a lot of Christian music, hair metal and otherwise, and it was just part of the youth culture that I grew up in that was built around my church experience and my friends at church. I bought Christian records and tapes and I went to Christian concerts and so I came in contact with a lot of Christian music.
The whole thing about the film is that it’s very forthright and honest, which is what really appealed to me–that it looks at everything with clear eyes. I mean, it’s very heartfelt and it’s very warm, and it’s not a condemnation of anything but, it’s definitely an unfiltered portrayal, I think, and it reminded me a lot of the folks with whom I grew up with any small Kansas town. I was wondering, how many of these interactions just between people are drawn from personal experience.
CW: It was heartfelt in the writing, but the thing may be that my heart most felt was just letting the characters be themselves and talk and do the things they would do and not try to filter them or fix them. A lot of times, adolescents in movies that are written by 40 or 50 year-old adults talk like 40 or 50 year-old adults. The magic thing about a coming-of-age movie is, as adults, we can go back and fix everything that we got wrong.
We can be a lot cooler, it can be a lot smoother and we can maybe be a lot more the way we wish things were–set the record straight, so to speak. And I had no intention to set the record straight. I just wanted to hear people walk around and talk like I remember people talking in that time and it certainly required turning off some judgment or allowing it to get cringey, like, “Oh gosh, I do think we said things like that.”
I don’t think anything’s too, too awful, but yeah, there were some times, even when I watched the movie where I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry I wrote that,” but it goes to the heart of the movie and what the movie is trying to do, which is really about an adult remembering, growing up and maybe looking at it, not through the lens of nostalgia, but finding something else there. That’s what we’re trying to do. And of course, Daniel can speak to his music, but his music was a natural lead-in for me to having that conversation and creating that world.
I loved the fact that Daniel, not only are you doing the score for the film, but you’re also doing the music for the myriad bands that appear in it, which I think allows it to have a little bit more cohesion than it might have otherwise. When you were writing the score, were you thinking of the music of 316 or Bloody Mass or things like that?
Daniel Smith: So it started with 316 songs. This whole kind of musical world was built from the three 316 songs: “Barabbas,” “Commando for Christ, and Girl, I Love Jesus Too.” It came out of conversations with Chris and his lyrics, ’cause he wrote all the lyrics. And so, kind of the way I was thinking was, “He’s creating these characters in the movie, but also these bands are characters, so let’s talk about ‘Who are the kids in 316?’” I mean, Since Chris wrote the lyrics, he already was speaking for them–at least the songwriter that wrote lyrics–but what do they sound like?
Are they for real? Are they serious? Yes, they’re serious. Are they trying to do the best they can? Yes. Is it going to be good? Let’s make it good, even though it probably wasn’t.
I have to imagine that, in your going through the music scene of over the decades, you have heard a lot of bands that maybe sounded like this. Were you trying to draw from like the less-professional bands you had heard, rather than simply going for like a straightforward Stryper knock-off?
Daniel Smith: For 316, we were going for writing great songs. The lyrics were absurd and, also, wouldn’t it be funny if these kids stumbled over some great melodies? My process was a little different than my usual process in the sense that there was kind of an assignment here, to a specific period of time and some stylistic sounds that we want: the electric guitar sounds, the double kick drum, big drum fills, screeching falsetto vocals with vibrato and lots of reverb on the tom.
Those were the elements that were put on on these songs to kind of disguise them. I wasn’t really trying to imitate it. It didn’t seem interesting to just make a complete rip off of a couple hits that already existed, so it was very much just like I was just writing Danielson songs in terms of, “I really like this,” although again, it wasn’t quite that, ’cause usually I have no rules for myself.
In this sense, there were some structural rules like, “Here’s some chord progressions that I have heard in some metal songs from the ’80s,” because I did immerse myself in that music for a good two months to begin with before I even thought about writing any music at all and it was all within ’84 to ’87. It wasn’t just Christian music. It was just all types of metal and just having fun, listening to that.
I actually went to a local record shop and bought–I don’t know, probably 40 metal CDs for a dollar apiece, and found a lot of stuff online and just had fun immersing myself. It’s mostly research for me now, at this age. I mean, when I was 12, I was listening to that music, so to listen to it now, what strikes me as interesting is still not very much, but what there was, I kind of ripped at least some chord progressions as a starting point.
There’s a scene in the film, where Eric is being interviewed for his position by 316 and they ask him what he’s listening to and it’s this insane litany of bands where I was like, “I’ve done my research. Like, I’ve done some writing on Christian independent music over the years and I’ve read Body Piercing Saved My Life and things like that, so I know what’s going on,” but after that scene, I was just like, “No, I do not. I am a dilettante in this world.” How much of this was research for you and how much of this was just going back to your youth?
CW: Well, early on in the process, after Daniel was signed to work on the music, you know, as a movie like this, we’ll have a music supervisor for the various needle-drop songs like songs from the past that we play in the background. We had a fantastic music supervisor who was an experienced music supervisor, but he also became a Christian music consultant. His name is John.
The funny thing is, when I was writing the screenplay, my primary resource for research was this book I found, called Raised By Wolves, and then it turns out that book was written by John Thompson. When I reached out to him about doing this, it suddenly clicked and I said, “Oh my gosh, I think you’re the guy that wrote the book that I used as a reference,” so he was an incredible resource. I thought I knew Christian rock in that era. I did not. I mean, John’s knowledge is very deep and all those artists who are still living, he knows in some way.
So, when it came time for that scene–which was wasn’t improv. I mean, the actor, Andrew Eakles, memorized 66 Christian bands, one for every book of the Bible. It was an idea that had come up a few days before we shot it, and I went to John, who happened to be on set, and I said, “Can you give me 66 bands that Eric would listen to?” He did a beautiful job of writing that and the actor memorized it and pronounced all the names right, and to a band and to an artist, they’re all real.
Some of them, I looked up later when I was in the edit and it was like, “Concrete Rubber Band? That’s a funny name for a band.” It’s a pretty good band name, but then looking into that, I discovered so many bands in the history of Jesus rock of the ’70s and ’80s. I actually found some really cool bands from John’s list. My knowledge was okay. I could probably win in Christian rock trivia. I could probably maybe get 80% of the questions right, at least in that era, but John Thompson? He’s the trivia master. He knows everything.
The discussion that happens about whether U2 is a Christian band or not made me flash back to middle school so hard. I’m like, “I’ve been present for this exact conversation.” I know so many Christian bands, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s would cover U2 songs because they are on the cusp and you can interpret them one way or the other, so if you put them in a certain context, it definitely works in a praise environment.
CW: I think the deal with U2 songs is, if it sounds like Bono is singing about God, he’s actually singing about sex and if it sounds like he’s singing about sex, he’s singing about God. I think just means it’s interchangeable in the U2 canon.
In terms of getting everybody on-screen able to perform these songs with a sense of realism, I know movies like Josie and the Pussycats had Rachel Leigh Cook and Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid all essentially playing, but not turned on. Was it that realistic or was it just like, “Okay, we’re going to just make sure your hands are in the right enough places that it’s passing”?
CW: Well, when you make a movie, we all start out with the grandest of intentions, and there were two films that were guiding really guiding my take on the band. The biggest one was probably That Thing You Do, which has incredible lore. Tom Hanks had just come off of winning an Oscar and I don’t know if he’d spent his own money, but he cashed in his clout to make this movie that, at the time, was a bit of a box office flop, but then went on in video stores to become very popular.
He wanted that band to play, so he cast his actors and they spent a month just going to band camp and learning to play and, of course, that would be my dream. It didn’t quite happen that way. I had two members of that band that could play: Wyatt Lenhart, who’s the singer and rhythm guitarist for the band. He can actually play and he really is singing. And then, Caleb Hoffman, who played drums: he had played drums in an actual worship band in high school and college, but the other guys are just good actors and they had to learn to put their fingers in the right place.
The other guiding music movie for me, rock and roll movie is The Commitments. That’s probably my favorite rock and roll movie and in that movie, they had actually had singing live on the day. So the guy singing? They’re recording it, so I wanted to do that, too. It did work out with the young woman who plays Sarah, Shannon Hutchinson. Her songs, she did sing live on the day, and that’s really what you see in the movie, but the kind of singing that’s required of Wyatt–who’s an amazing vocalist–all those tracks were done in the studio. That’s hard to do on take five. I don’t know that he can sing that anymore today.
We tried and we mixed some of the live vocals, but when you hear Shannon sing in the movie, you’re here hearing it live for sure, recorded on the day. You start out any project–a music project, a book, whatever your creative endeavor is–you want it to be the dream. You want it to be everything you could ever hope for it to be and then you get into the practical realities of making a movie and sometimes it’s like, “You know, this is not going to be practical to have Wyatt singing that high, that long, that intensely on a movie set all day.”
Shannon Hutchison’s voice is amazing. The song she sings solo are amazing, but that performance of “This World Is Not My Home” just kicked my butt. I was watching it and I was like, “She’s really good,” and then when they kicked in electric, I was just like, “Oh, well, I’m.” I like the fact that it’s also kind of a different style for the band. It’s a very cow-punky kind of song.
CW: And it’s also the moment in the movie. It’s the turning point in the movie, where it starts to become clear to us that maybe this movie is not about this band: it’s about this girl. I’m doing a lot in the movie to turn the, the rock band muse idea on its head a little bit. Normally in rock band movies, there was a girl and she’s the fulfillment of every boy’s wish and artistic desire, but in this movie, the guy telling us the story is starting to realize something like, “You know, maybe this wasn’t about my band. Maybe it was Sarah’s origin story”–which it is–and in that moment, I think, is when we get really wobbly on who the protagonist is now, and so she really had to come out of the gates and knock it out of the park and, and she really did. I can still remember shooting that day and she was just wonderful.