Innovative Christian Band Kings Kaleidoscope Talks to Rocking God’s House!
Ever since God told Adam to name the animals, we have had a compulsion to label things.
But every now and then something comes along that doesn’t easily fit into our neat little categories. Christian band Kings Kaleidoscope — the first signing of BadChristian Music, a new label formed by the band Emery — is one of these rare beasts of music. It is a 10-piece ensemble of musicians that plays two drum sets, various percussion, horns, strings, guitar, keyboards/piano, bass, tubular bells (and other various tuned percussion), wind instruments, and probably a bunch of other things I’m not aware of — all led by a former hip hop DJ, Chad Gardner, who sings, produces, and arranges the music. They recently released six videos for six songs that they recorded live, and this became their EP Live in Color, which you can hear, watch, and learn more about at the official Kings Kaleidoscope website — which even includes a documentary about the recording sessions, including live shots of this jaw-dropping band at work.
This band is one of the most creative, interesting bands that I’ve encountered — Christian or secular. And when people find a rare bird like this, they sometimes get tongue tied or they string together a long list of adjectives in an attempt to capture it. On the other hand, labeling things is a necessary evil if you’re going to effectively run a business or market anything, and the music industry is a business — it’s unavoidable and necessary.
But it occurred to me as I listened to this band that the world of symphonic music (the classical/instrumental world) would have no trouble at all describing this group; they’d call them a modern chamber ensemble that plays crossover music, meaning the ensemble plays any genre or style it wants. Audiences are not coming to hear one particular genre, they come to see the ensemble itself, knowing that whatever they play — whether it’s Mozart, hip hop, pop, or rock — it is going to be interesting. To be clear, I’m not saying these guys and gals are classical. I’m merely pointing out that the Christian music industry has something very special in Kings Kaleidoscope: a versatile chamber ensemble that shatters creative boundaries.
And, good Lord, do we need that right now.
I expressed as much to Chad in our interview as I led up to my first question:
Is that sort of the premise of your band: to take the focus off of genre and just bring something interesting to the Christian music world?
I would say the focus, as far as musically, comes from our background. I grew up in a very musical family: my uncle is a choir director at a cathedral in Seattle, everybody played in the orchestra growing up, and then I was a percussionist, and then I was a hip-hop DJ. So I learned how to create music by sampling records — vinyl — and making beats, producing beats. So to do that in a band situation, you need all of those instruments; so I work with all of the instruments that I would normally have if I were sampling from vinyl. That’s how all the pieces come together and are useful to me, as kind of the chief arranger; everybody is really talented — everybody on their classical instruments or rock instruments has their own background — but that’s sort of my wheelhouse when it comes to arranging: having lots of different textures and instruments to pull from.
That actually makes a lot of sense because DJs are sort of the modern day composers in the sense that they are pulling from everything and arranging everything much like a traditional orchestrator would do when he or she’s prepping music for an orchestra to play.
Yeah, you know — it’s collage art — is how I would say it a lot of times.
Cool term, “collage art,” I like that. You also have very poetic lyrics that, in my opinion, help Christians rediscover Christ in a fresh way, particularly “Felix Culpa,” one of my favorite songs on your EP. What inspired the lyrics for that one?
The lyrics were inspired by a couple different things. I was inspired by the idea of looking at sin and not seeing it for its weight and its heaviness — just the awful gravity that it is — but actually seeing that every sin is an example of God’s forgiveness; so actually being able to look at it and have it be an encouragement because we know that God forgives us. And then I was just sharing that with a pastor friend of mine one day, and he was like, “Oh, that’s actually a philosophy and a theological thing that people have been kicking around for a long time. It’s called Felix Culpa.” So I responded, “No way!” [laughs] And at the same time, my wife and I were doing some counseling, just working through our marriage and some stuff, and another pastor was saying to me the same thing, and it all came together as we were talking — and I’m in the middle of this album — and he was like, “You need to write songs where you glory in your sin forgiven.” So that’s part of the chorus there. And then you know, as I looked up Felix Culpa, the tag line is “oh happy fault,” or “fortunate fall” — so that was all in the same month: I was mulling over it, I found out the theological thing, and then I had a life application for it, which was really awesome; and then it all came together.
There is a lot of joy in that song. And I agree there is a Christian tendency — I’ve experienced it myself — where you just kind of clench up and you want to go to the Law and rely on guilt to find motivation, but your song has all this joy — the covenant of grace — in it.
And “Kaleidoscope” is a great word choice [for the band name]. I enjoy listening to your songs on headphones because you’ve got all these different tone colors from different instruments spread across the sonic space, and it is just a wonderful listening experience [like an audio kaleidoscope]. Is it really labor-intensive to mix a song when you’ve got a 10-piece ensemble like that?
It is. It’s very labor-intensive. I’ve just been really lucky to work with people that know me well, that I really trust when they go to mix, so they’re really gracious with me. And I have a pretty good idea what I want to hear, when I want to hear it, and so on one hand it’s actually always surprisingly easy to mix us — in the sense that there’s not a lot of bands that have the same textures or that sonically sound like us. For somebody mixing for a normal band it’s easy to compare, “Well, his guitar doesn’t really sound as big as this guitar over here, etc.” but with us it’s so interesting that you kinda go, “Oh, that sounds interesting and cool,” [laughs]. But on the other hand there is a lot going on, there are lots of volume fades, and [that part] is a burden. But everybody I work with they know I’m going to have lots of revisions and we go through five or six revisions a song — and that’s for a live recording — studio it’s a little easier, but for the live recording, it’s a lot.
It does seem liberating that you don’t have this pressure to conform to something that’s already out there because you’re creating something new in the Christian music industry that we haven’t really heard before. And, as far as the songwriting process, are you the primary composer — i.e. do you write out the parts and orchestrate everything or is it a collaborative songwriting process done during rehearsals with everybody?
Yeah, it’s very collaborative. Well, I’d say that most ideas are done that way. There’s a lot of back and forth so like I said because I have that DJ beat producer in me I will make demos sometimes with plenty of orchestral ideas, and in the past I used to write out stuff or score stuff on Sibelius for parts for the strings and [the other players]. I would bring it to the band, they’d always interpret it, and we’d jam it a lot live. And they have the best ideas, and they’re all way more gifted and talented than me on their individual instruments, and then I kind of come back and figure out how we’re gonna record it and take all their ideas and then re-interpret them. There’s kind of a back and forth.
That’s really interesting. I mean it sounds like a lot of work, but it sounds really fun too. [laughs]
It’s really fun, yeah; I come up with a song idea, I take it to the band, and they almost always make the ideas sound better live or, they’re just full of great ideas, and they’ll be, “Well, what if we did this or let’s change this chord progression.” And then it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s even better,” then I can take it back and work it into the song.
That’s cool, it’s like plugging your ideas into an amplifier and it just explodes into something bigger and more colorful [laughs]
[laughs] It is, I mean, I tell the band all the time: “use this well-oiled machine to get your ideas you have out musically because that’s how we’re going to keep it fresh; we have a nice machine running here that can pump out ideas so bring ’em on.” So they’re all bringing me different ideas.
I love particularly the jazz breakdown at the end of “Felix Culpa,” after you finish the “grace upon grace” line at about three minutes in. Where does the jazz come from? Is there one or two particular musicians in your band that have previous jazz experience?
Lot of people [in the band] have jazz experience. I went to high school with both drummers, and they played in jazz bands. And the trombone player played at the University of Washington jazz band for awhile. But that’s funny because that was such a last minute tag on that: we were kind of like, “Oh yeah, that would be really cool to do a live fade out.” I don’t really like fade outs usually unless it’s a new idea, but this is a new idea and it’s live, so I thought it’d be really cool.
What do you like about doing hymns?
That’s a really good question. I would say, growing up, there were a lot of people in the United States who weren’t allowed to listen to secular music, but I was kind of the opposite: I could listen to everything, I was exposed to everything at the same time I was in church, and what I actually really didn’t like was the worship music. I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world; the Christian music industry was the devil. But since then [my attitude] is more, “Whatever, it is what it is.” It’s a business, it makes sense, it’s effective as far as the business goes. I don’t have as nearly as much gripe with it as I used to. So growing up I was always looking for better imagery in lyrics, and the theology is a huge piece [of it]. Especially in a church setting, singing truth is the most important thing when you’re talking about congregational singing. I’m blown away by modern hymn writers that can write like that. It’s not that hymns are better because they’re old, but anybody that can write truth in a poetic way that still has a lot of human emotion and understanding to it, I think that’s amazing. I think “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep the Father’s Love” are the most amazing sounds ever, and they’ve been written in the past 20 years or something. And that blows my mind. I guess I was always looking for those things: better imagery, deeper theology, and truth that you can sing with the congregation. That continued on as I started working for different churches coming out of high school.
I love how hymns facilitate corporate worship. They’re so easy for everyone to sing, but some Christian rock worship songs are really hard for everyone to sing, honestly. But you’re transitioning from a church setting where you were leading worship and facilitating worship for the congregation to a band that is on tour and performing; but I remember reading that you still want to engage the audience. How is that been going as you’ve been playing shows and transitioning?
We haven’t done a ton of it yet, so it’s all kind of up in the air — we don’t know. [With this EP] we were like, “Hey, let’s shoot some video,” and, “Oh this turned out pretty cool let’s release it as a little EP.” [laughs] I’m not sure how it’s going to work, but I do know this: Jay-Z will play a stadium with 30,000 people and everyone there will rap along to every single lyric he has. And that’s rap. That’s hard. [laughs] That’s very hard. But when people connect emotionally with a song — even in like screamo music people shout [along to the] choruses and stuff like that — I just think that the human connection is the biggest piece. I’m not saying that churches should do difficult music. I do think in church there has to be a simple, easy to follow, almost liturgical straight ahead thing. On Sunday mornings I say make it clear, make it full of truth, make it easy to participate so that the lowest common denominator person that isn’t musical is going to be able to participate with it because they’re not paying $50 just to go to a rap show [for an album] that they’ve listened to for five years and they know the words. They [the people in church] are just there, and they don’t even know what songs are going to be there; it’s a different thing than a concert, right? But then when it comes to recording an album I think it’s a totally different experience to listen to something in your house, listen to something in your car, listen to something on your headphones, and then see the band play live. You have purchased it or you have at least looked it up on Pandora or Spotify and you are invested in it in a different way, and I think you connect with it in a different way. Songs that are Sunday morning songs don’t always translate well onto recorded format.
I definitely agree.
Yeah, I mean we like to listen to worship music sometimes during the week like when we’re praying, but honestly I don’t know anybody who listens to more worship music than just bands they like. They have a deeper emotional connection with just bands they like. So on a recorded format, that’s kind of where we’re going, we’re just in album mode: what’s going to be interesting for people to listen to? What’s going to be compelling right now as opposed to what’s compelling when we’re leading a multi-generational congregation to sing a bunch of songs together that they don’t always know [because it changes] every week? It’s a totally different ballgame.
Really interesting points, and I think it will be interesting and fun to see how your band brings your innovative sound into a performance setting at live shows. I’m sure the band with have a lot of fun with that. And, now this is a random Bible thought, kind of obscure, but for some reason your band reminds me of the tabernacle of David, and how he had all these different types of musicians — with a variety of different instruments — gathered around the Ark, around the Presence of God, and I kind of thought that even though the Christian music industry might look at your band and say, “Wow, this is completely new,” well actually you’re doing something very traditional — maybe the most traditional form of worship — because you’re bringing a diverse group of musicians and just gathering around Christ like David and all his musicians/priests gathered around the Ark. Do you all kind of feel — even when you’re playing complex stuff and rehearsing — do you feel the Presence of God, do you feel worship while you’re doing it?
Yeah, totally, I mean, it’s like having faith like a child; we feel like kids finger-painting for Dad. [laughs]
[laughs] That’s awesome.
It’s like, “Hey [Dad], this is what we came up with.” It’s about just having fun. Christian musicians take themselves too seriously sometimes. You can be on one side of the thing and saying, “I wrote this song after lighting some candles and [expressing] whatever I felt,” and then on the other side it’s, “Well, for this song I basically transcribed Romans.” [laughs] “It’s very theologically correct!” Look, at the end of the day, I believe the only thing that God cares about is your heart. You can write the most theologically accurate song in the world, and if it doesn’t connect with anybody and if you didn’t worship God in the process, it doesn’t matter at all. Or you can write the worst song in the world but if you really were honestly worshiping God, that’s fine, and I’m not going to dog you for the song; but we just want to glorify God in our hearts and enjoy the process. It’s all about being satisfied in Him and not in the end result of what we’re doing or anything like that.
For 2014, what are your plans as a band; are you going to be focusing on touring or are you going to be in the studio (or both)?
We are in the studio right now working real hard on our debut LP. It’s been so many years; we have never gotten the right opportunity to release a full-length so [laughs] it’s been four EPs. We’ve been in a band for four years, which is crazy, but we’re working really hard on it, it’s going to be really cool. I’m producing it, and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and that’s going to be coming out hopefully by the end of this summer or early fall, and we’re right on schedule for that, which is awesome. It will be a big album, lots of tracks, lots of new songs, and then as far as touring goes we’ll still play lots of one-off festivals and conferences hopefully; but the band was formed as a church band where everybody was volunteers. They all have jobs still, so we’ll do some tours, but they won’t be out for six months; we’ll be out for a couple weeks here at a time, and I’m looking forward to that as well.
As I told Chad at the close of the interview, it is going to be difficult to wait for their full-length to come out. It’s a rare thing to discover a band that you’re immediately excited about — so excited in fact that you can’t wait for their next release. If you want to join in on the excitement and see for yourself why Kings Kaleidoscope is one of the most innovative bands of any genre today, check out their music at their website and keep an eye out for their new album later this year.