When most people hear the phrase “religion in modern music,” their thoughts immediately turn to the ’90s influx of Christian-rock bands, or bands like Creed, which claims to be Christian whenever convenient and then dismisses the title when it doesn’t work to its benefit.
Yet from Ray Charles to Madonna, religion has influenced popular music since its creation. Pop music had its start in churches, where gospel music abandoned the word “God” and turned into soul. And the ideas and images of faith and different religions remain a prevalent topic in modern society, making them equally prevalent in modern pop culture and music.
Although using religious imagery in song lyrics is hardly a new idea, punk-rock band The Thermals have taken the concept and twisted it in such a way that some find shocking. Much like the work of artist Mark Bryan (featured in yesterday’s “Religion & Art” series), The Thermals use religious imagery to comment on what it feels is the government’s use of religion as propaganda for war.
The Thermals’ most recent album is a 2006 punk-rock anthem calling for the separation of church and state titled “The Body, The Blood, The Machine,” a reference to the Catholic sacrament of Eucharist. The album, bleeding with religious imagery, had fans writing in asking if The Thermals were a Christian-rock band.
But with lyrics like “Locusts, tornadoes/crosses and Nazi halos” and “A giant fist is out to crush us,” The Thermals are anything but Christian rock.
Although lead singer and guitarist Hutch Harris emphasized The Thermals are not an anti-Christian band, its lyrics are a far cry from the likes of Creed, which sings, “I close my eyes, begin to pray / then tears of joy stream down my face.”
The Mustang Daily caught up with Harris, a writer who has trouble keeping Catholic imagery out of his lyrics, while he was writing his new album. He hopes this one will be religion-free . but no guarantees.
Mustang Daily: What kind of roles do you think religion, spirituality and music play in defining a person’s life?
Hutch Harris: Well let’s start with religion; I mean, I think the statistic is something like 97 or 96 percent of Americans believe in God, so like everyone has religion. Everyone has music in their life. . Music is just so important to people, ever since you’re a little kid – I mean, for most people, for me, of course. You can’t imagine your life without it, and it’s just like it’s so attached to your memories. It’s inescapable.
MD: You kind of grouped spirituality and religion together – do you think those are kind of the same thing?
HH: For some people, they are; for some people, (they’re) obviously not. It depends if you want to describe religion as “organized religion.” For us, when we attack religion, it’s not attacking spirituality; it’s more against the corruption that you find in organization.
MD: I feel like a lot of your lyrics say that there’s too much religion in the government, so I’m going to play devil’s advocate here: If religion is a part of modern society and pop culture, shouldn’t the government reflect modern society and pop culture?
HH: Um, no. (laughs) I don’t think so. The goal is really to serve society and serve the civilians in the best way possible. It’s usually not happening that way, but that’s what it’s supposed to be. And I think – this is tough – I don’t want to even know if the president believes in God or not. I just want him to do his job well. You know? Just serve the society.
I don’t even really believe that Bush or Cheney, or anyone there – I mean, if they are really Christians or if they’re religious then they’re just total hypocrites because they’re just spreading all this shit around the world. They’re really violent, evil people. It doesn’t go with any religion that I’ve ever heard of. It’s more, to us, that they’re using religion to hold power and to keep the donations coming in, because that’s where the money comes from. I think it’s more that they use it than that they actually are religious.
MD: I found it kind of ironic that your lyrics paint the image of a destructive, cruel God and that people are shocked by that. Yet when you look at the Bible, in the Old Testament God is kind of destructive and can be cruel. Are you just interpreting the Bible as you see it?
HH: That record is heavy on the Old Testament; all of the imagery is Old Testament. There’s really no New Testament; there’s no turning of the other cheek on that record. I think maybe we shouldn’t have put Jesus on the cover because . it really doesn’t have much to do with Jesus. It’s really about Old Testament God. And God was real, you know, he was fucking angry for most of the Old Testament.
MD: From what you’ve expressed in other articles, it seems like you have a complicated relationship with God and spirituality. What do you believe?
HH: Not much. I can’t say one way or the other. I haven’t been convinced, I guess. I don’t know if I ever will be. But I had this point in my life where I believed in a higher power. And I even liked organized religion at one point – I was really into my Christian church in high school. … I have a problem with organized religion; that’s completely separate of my faith. My faith is just something that I don’t know if I’ll ever have, but I had something in the past. I’ve had a love of faith before, but it’s not like I believed and then lost my faith. It’s more that I’ve never been fully convinced.
MD: Growing up Catholic, you’ve had a lot of connections to religion and religious symbolism throughout your life. Do you think that’s why you tend to focus on that in your writing?
HH: Yeah. Actually we’re writing a new record right now, and I’ve specifically tried to not focus on that. The last record we did was really heavy on religion and then both records before that one – you know, it’s hard to keep it out of the lyrics. Yeah. That stuff’s just always kind of floating around in my head for better or for worse. It was definitely close to the point of overkill on that last record as far as politics and religion so . on the next record I’m going to try and distance myself from that.
MD: Do you think Christians or other religious groups may be offended by your lyrics on this last record?
HH: We’ve gotten so much mail that’s been positive, from people who are Christian and from people who basically feel the same way I do. … They feel like people like George Bush give them a bad name and give Christians a bad name.
A lot of people have written in to us – and this still happens. This happened really frequently in the past two weeks for some reason – a lot of people were writing to us asking us if we’re a Christian band. That started since the record came out. I mean, it’s not an anti-Christian record; this record is a political record that really is just driven by the point that church and state are separated less and less and that’s a bad thing. So a lot of people listen to that and listen to the record and think we’re a Christian band.
But there have been a couple of people who have been angry and who wrote to us and think we’re just bashing anyone who believes in God, which is crazy, and I wouldn’t do that because most people do (laughs). I think if they listened to the lyrics closer, anyone who was upset would see that it’s not just punk-rock religion-bashing, that there’s more of a point to it.
MD: What’s your opinion of Christian-rock bands?
HH: I don’t like Christian-rock bands. (laughs) I haven’t heard that many. I remember like a few from when I was in high school. I think that that’s really against the point of the rebellious side of rock ‘n’ roll, hopefully. Mostly it’s just not good music. The lyrics like “he lifts me up” and shit like that, I just really don’t like the way it sounds.
MD: You mentioned that you were going to stray away from using religious symbolism, but I read somewhere that your next record is going to be called “Politics Don’t Sell Records.” Is that still the plan?
HH: No, that was a couple ideas ago. That was a joke – we just kind of like to throw out a lot of fake titles out there, not to throw people off but just kind of to be funny. I think “Politics Is Boring” was going to be the title, and then “Politics Don’t Sell Records,” and then I started working on a record being told from the afterlife, like all the lyrics written like the narrator was dead already. And then that I threw out already – I wrote a couple of songs like that. And now, heartache and heartbreak, that’s what the record’s going to be about now. Lots of sad love songs . well, not sad, but pretty emotional. (laughs)
MD: Do you know when it’s going to be out?
HH: We don’t even have the demos done. I hope to have it recorded by June or July, and then it’ll probably be out in the fall, like September. We split from Sub Pop records, like they had offered us another contract that we turned down, so we’re going to probably find another record label.