by Lisa Zhito
The Insyderz are venturing beyond the confines of the Christian market
Call them crazy. Call them naive. But whatever you do, don't call them unChristian. News that ska-core band, The Insyderz are pursuing a mainstream career may come as a surprise to fans of their ground breaking praise and worship collection, The Insyderz Present Skalleluia, but it shouldn't.
"We just feel God has put us together as a band to reach the unsaved," lead singer and band co-founder Joe Yerke says. "Whether that means we put out CDs that go into secular stores, or play on secular tours, we are willing to do it, and we are willing to do it 100 percent."
What that really means is that their latest release, Fight Of My Life, is a radical departure from Skalleluia. The new songs reflect a maturation of sorts, and with a production budget nearly six times what was spent on the last record, they consider Fight Of My Life an all-around better record.
The message is also a lot more ambiguous than Skalleluia's, in a calculated effort to not frighten away the secular market. "This is an album where if the believer heard it, they'd be like, Right on, we know what they're singing about," Yerke says. "But if a non-believer heard it they wouldn't be like, Oh my gosh, this is a Christian band."
"It's definitely not Skalleluia II," drummer Nate Sjogren says with a laugh. "The message can be taken either way...you don't know if we're singing about a girl or whatever," Yerke adds.
That might not sit well with some youth pastors, and the guys are geared for the battle. And, incidentally, so is their record company. "Just as every church should be supporting missionaries," KMG Records VP Kent Songer says, "I think every lover of Christian music should support certain bands that will go out of the Christian community and minister to the secular market."
KMG is hoping to find a huge Insyderz following among secular college kids and on mainstream alternative radio. To do this, the release of Fight Of My Life--a prophetic title if ever there was one--was accompanied by an October tour of secular clubs on a bill that featured secular ska bands The Skeletones and Jeffrey's Fan Club. It's all part of a plan to test the waters, hopefully build interest on the radio and lay the groundwork for a much bigger secular tour in April.
None of this means the band is leaving Christian music, or their Christianity, behind. Instead, it's more a return to their musical roots, as heard on Motor City Ska, than anything else. The problem is that Skalleluia was such an unexpected hit, it thrust the once-underground skaters into the limelight with a record that really isn't representative of what they do.
Sure, The Insyderz have had a phenomenal year. Thanks largely to the success of Skalleluia, ska is no longer the underground scene it once was. Fellow Christian ska bands like The Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy are riding a wave of popularity; a surge in concert bookings has kept everyone busy.
But now it's time to get back to business, and for The Insyderz that means going after secular audiences. "I don't want to see one more ska kid come to a show drunk," Yerke says. "I don't want one more [unmarried] couple to go home from one of our shows and have sex. I don't believe God has called us to sit in our cliques and wait for the world to come to us in our churches. He wants us to go out and spread His message. As a band we just think it's kinda too late nowadays to sit back and wait for the world to come to the shows on Friday. We're sick of it. Throw all the flyers and posters you want in all the secular music clubs--I don't think it's going to work anymore. It's time we step it up and start going after [the secular kids]."
It's an increasingly common sentiment among young Christian rockers who are frustrated by pressure to constantly preach to the choir; they're taking their message outside the church walls and if you don't like it, get over it.
But what about those cynics who say they're compromising the message to make a Christian band palatable to mainstream tastes? "On Judgment Day, I stand before God," Yerke says with passion. "I don't stand before consumers, I don't stand before Billy Graham or a panel of youth pastors. If I have to stand onstage in a Speedo to reach [secular kids], I'll do it.
We've already had criticism over the stupidest little things," he notes. Indeed, The Insyderz took some hits over Skalleluia when some critics felt the band was merely trying to capitalize on the Christian marketplace by releasing a praise and worship album. "We put the album out because we play that kind of music in our shows. We'd have kids coming up to us after shows saying, put 'Lord I Lift Your Name On High' on your next record, we love that! When you hear that 200 times over the years you're like, Are we going to put out a ska praise album or not?"
They've also made waves with record companies and management. Offered lucrative touring opportunities with some major Christian rock bands, The Insyderz have turned them all down. "We don't want to be on someone else's agenda," Yerke explains. "Like Audio Adrenaline or Third Day--their crowd is a lot different, it's a youth group crowd. Newsboys or Audio Adrenaline can't reach a punk rock kid with a three-foot mohawk drinking a beer and smoking a joint because that kid is not going to a church to see Newsboys shows. But they will go to a Friday night club where there's two punk bands and two ska bands. If we are one of those ska bands, then we can reach that kid."
It takes more than being in the right place at the right time to reach a secular audience, of course. Secular kids will sniff out a phony in an instant. Yerke notes that The Insyderz have at their core some real life experience that enables them to relate to just about every issue on the table. "Sometimes I take a look at us, and I look at each guy's background, and it's like God has taken every guy and said, There's an ex-drug user in the band--they can relate to that; there's a recovering alcoholic in the band--they can relate to that. So no one can walk away from a concert and say, They don't know what I'm going through."
For Yerke the issue has been trying to track down his father, who walked out on him, his sister, and his mother. Yerke hasn't seen or heard from him in more than three years and has recently begun actions to locate him. "When you haven't seen your dad in three years, it's tough," he says. "My high school years were spent not knowing what was going on with my dad. It was a time to hold closer to God. God has seen me through it."
If he does locate his father, what would he say? "Shoot, I love you? Give him a big hug, I guess. It's hard to explain. It's probably a whole separate article."
Sjogren has had a completely different kind of struggle--one that may be difficult for mainstream kids to understand, but one the Christian community certainly can relate to. Sjogren says he got wrapped up in a movement called Straight Edge that he now refers to as a sub-culture. "It was a discipline you align yourself with where there's no drinking, no smoking, no sex--it's purification of the self, but only for the reason of the self. I was caught up in a self-righteous movement. I was hard-line strict on myself, but not to glorify God, just for myself. I realize now how selfish that was and how self-centered. When you try to better yourself for your own good, all you practice is selfishness."
The secular tour could be a recipe for disaster. One is reminded of Jars of Clay, who booted The Samples off their 1997 tour over issues that largely boiled down to the fact that Jars is a Christian band and The Samples isn't. Sjogren and Yerke both say that won't happen to The Insyderz. "When you're going out with another band, you're already on a professional level," Sjogren notes. "If you can't get past that someone's lifestyle is different from yours, then maybe that's not the arena you should be working in. If we're the ones called to a higher standard, we need to live by that; we can't push that on someone else and expect them to live the way we do, because they have no reason to." He adds, "The opening band has to be respectful of the fact that there might be Christians there to see us and they have to keep their set to a certain standard."
By the same token, The Insyderz show will be tailored to the secular setting. "We want to go in and love on people, but it's the clubs, not a church," Sjogren says. "The way to reach people in those settings is far different from the way you would at a Christian festival."
Yerke says the band members have also knuckled down on their own spiritual discipline. "We understand that if God wants us to keep going, The Insyderz machine won't work if all the parts aren't moving the same way," he explains. "We've really made it a point before every show to have Bible study. We sit down and all get into the Word together. Sometimes we break out into prayer groups. That has really brought the band a lot closer together. We do it before every show and it's been really cool."
Whether The Insyderz will be received by the mainstream crowd remains to be seen. KMG's Songer knows the pitfalls. A veteran of dealing with "edgy" Christian rock bands, he knows artists must possess a high level of maturity to handle success in the secular arena. "It's the success you need to be concerned about," he says. "You have to look at the individuals you sign, you've got to look at character. You have to make sure when they get into the secular marketplace they don't self-destruct. The Insyderz have just about the highest level of character of any band I've worked with in 16 years. I have a high degree of trust that these guys are going to keep their feet on the ground."
Call them crazy? Naive? Maybe. But whatever you do, call them Christians, too.