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Going Secular at SXSW

The band Gungor is using the festival to broaden its fan base outside the churches where it made its name. Can it escape the stigma of Christian rock without alienating its devoted followers?

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Luca Ventor

As Gungor concluded its South by Southwest set at the Red Eyed Fly, a grungy downtown Austin club, a fan in the front row started shouting at the band. It was a familiar request: to sing just one more song. “Play ‘Beautiful Things’!” she yelled as the musicians started to clear the stage of guitars and keyboards. “You need to play ‘Beautiful Things’!” The song is the band’s biggest hit, but it hadn’t made the set list, which featured material mostly culled from the band’s new album, I Am Mountain. “I had never seen a fan get that furious with us,” Michael Gungor, the band’s leader, told me. Most musicians develop a thick skin when it comes to heckling, but this woman’s anger had a wounded quality. “You can’t be ashamed,” she said.

Ashamed, that is to say, because we weren’t in a church. “Beautiful Things” is the song that has brought Gungor its relative amount of fame—at least among a certain audience: thousands of people throughout the country sing Michael’s contemporary hymnal at church on Sunday mornings.

The band’s performance at the Red Eyed Fly was the first big public effort to try to transcend that reputation. SXSW is one of the largest music festivals in America, with more than two thousand bands playing over five days, yet few of the bands that play have ties to the Christian music industry, which has its own festivals and touring circuits and publicists and booking agents and radio stations. Gungor came up in that world, where they are known as trendy and progressive—one song is called “God Is Not a White Man.” But on their new record, I Am Mountain, which came out last September, the band steered away from overt references to God or Jesus. There is no mention of religion or faith in the press materials, which compare the music to that of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. A sixty-date tour darted between theaters and beer-soaked clubs, forgoing many of the churches where the band had once played.

And this is the challenge for Gungor: How do you make a dent in the world of indie music, which is often allergic to anything religious, without alienating the churchgoers that gave the band so much success early on? Their trajectory raises a bigger set of questions, chief among them: What makes music religious at all? Is it where it’s played, whether a church or a bar? Is it the lyrics? The private inner feelings of the audience members? Of the band members?

Michael Gungor has written about these issues on his blog, posts that have an eager, confessional tone. Shortly after the band started to get played on Christian radio with the release of “Beautiful Things,” in early 2010, he wrote one post (“Just guttural angst vomited onto a laptop keyboard,” he later called it) in which he accused most popular Christian music of being inauthentic and given to “false emotion.” “There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station,” he wrote, “than about the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus.”

As you might imagine, it hit a nerve. 

“The real problem with the ‘Christian Music Industry’ is that Michael Gungor is a part of it,” wrote one commenter. “You sound like an ignorant, stuck-up oaf,” wrote another. A couple of years later Michael apologized for writing “in a way that lends itself to a fight rather than a discussion.” The point had been to address fellow members of the same industry, whereas it reads more like a judgmental attack. “Now that we’re not trying to be a part of that industry, the blog post feels more disrespectful,” he explained. 

And now that the band is making a move to the secular music industry, more negative comments have followed, including one that said Michael “won’t cop to being a Bible-believing Christian and yet certainly didn’t mind pretending in the past in order to gain fame and riches.”

Michael, who is tall and wiry, with heavy eyelids that give him a sleepy, mystical look, talks about Christian music as something the band fell into naturally, since “that was just how I grew up—music and church were so closely associated with each other.”

Growing up in Wisconsin, he met John Arndt, a pianist and composer who now lives in Austin and co-writes much of the band’s material. The band’s songs caught on in the evangelical Christian community. They hired an agent, who pushed them into the Christian touring circuit, a sort of alternate universe to that of rock clubs. But to Michael, the Christian element in their music was “no different than a hip-hop artist being influenced by gospel.”

Now, however, Gungor’s lyrics no longer have explicit mentions of Christian keywords. They have a more vague, spiritual tone. “I am mountain, I am dust. Constellations made of us,” Michael sings on the album’s title track. The band chimes in with a resounding chorus of “oh’s” that sounds churchy only if you’re looking for it. On the song “Wandering,” his wife, Lisa, sings through the auto-tuning effect that was once associated with the rapper T-Pain, “I’ve been wandering through this world, looking for an anchor to hold me.” It’s another lyric that could be construed as referencing Jesus or God, but it’s certainly not overt or obvious. 

After the album came out, Gungor took on a new manager, Rishon Blumberg, whose contacts and connections lie in, for lack of a better term, secular music circles. As an outsider to the intramural debates within the Christian music community, he described it as a place where “they’re so welcoming . . . and then they don’t want to let you go.” 

The online criticisms haven’t crippled Gungor. They’re doing well on the road, and many of their Christian fans will go see them in Austin at Emo’s instead of Grace Covenant Church, where they performed two years ago. “I think the audience that we’ve come along with have changed within themselves a little bit,” Michael said. “Some people say ‘I didn’t listen to anything but Christian music before you,’ like we’re the evangelists of secular music to Christian fans.”

At the same time, finding a new audience has been harder than he expected and may take longer than one touring cycle. “It’s just that Christian music has a taboo and a stigma,” he told me, “and it’s associated with the religious right.”

Other, more famous acts have made the transition before. Katy Perry was signed to a Christian label years before her 2008 hit single “I Kissed a Girl” signaled a radical departure. Evanescence, Mumford & Sons, and, years earlier, Sixpence None the Richer all had Christian roots but gained a foothold in mainstream music. Creed has been wildly successful in the mainstream despite the Christian content of their lyrics. The path has been trodden before, but that doesn’t make doing it again any easier. The nature of the music industry, secular or Christian, is that no two acts can have the same trajectory, and it’s simply very difficult to gain a large following no matter how good the music or how savvy the marketing.  

Both Blumberg and Michael often mention the singer-songwriter and composer Sufjan Stevens, who openly sings about God, Jesus, and prayer, while never being saddled with the “Christian” music label. Michael recalled seeing a poster that referred to his band as the Christian version of Sufjan Stevens, which struck him as absurd since Stevens himself has a song called “The Transfiguration.” The difference, of course, was in the marketing and not in the music. 

So how does someone find that new audience?

“Well,” he said, “that’s why we’re here.”

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