Just a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean, in the parking lot of Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, a dirty white “short bus” that has been converted into a camper-van rests silently against the solid blue backdrop of the summer sky. Its dashboard is strewn with maps, sunglasses, plastic water-bottles, and gum wrappers. It looks like a teenage boy’s bedroom on wheels. Hitched to the back of the van is a large white trailer with its tailgate down. In silence, a handful of scruffy young men wearing t-shirts and jeans, and sporting a few tattoos roll amplifiers, speaker cabinets, and racks of lights out the back of the road-weary trailer. Five hours before they will perform for a crowd of enthusiastic teenagers, they do the thankless, back-breaking work of setting up their own stage and sound system.
Like so many young rock bands, The Thirsting is “on the road” trying to get their music out there. They sleep in their van, eat at truck stops, drive for hours on end, set up their own gear, and play for whoever will listen. It’s not an easy life, but they’re passionate about what they do. And what they do is play rock n’ roll…Catholic rock n’ roll.
In the small world of Catholic rock music, the “Do It Yourself (DIY)” philosophy is not an alternative to working with a large record label or publishing company, it’s the only option for most artists. If they want people to hear their music, then they must handle every facet of the artistic process themselves. They produce their own recordings, book their own gigs, and market and sell their own merchandise. There is no record label, no manager, no agent, and no publicist. If they don’t do it themselves, it doesn’t get done. “Booking our gigs is a lot of hard work,” Josh Olson, the guitarist for The Thirsting explains, “phone calls, and emails. A lot of it has been us sitting by the phones. One thing we’ve been doing recently is compiling a big data base of all the dioceses, and youth leaders all across the country. And so we try to call them and get events booked that way.” This is a common situation for most Catholic rock artists. Mike BeLoud of the LA-based band Rise makes it clear that every aspect of touring, not just booking gigs, is usually left up to the artist. “We have generally paid for all our own travel,” he states, “including our trip to Germany (for World Youth Day 2005). Occasionally, a promoter will offer a small stipend for travel, but mostly we take care of our own logistics.”
David Vogel, an award winning Catholic artist, also survives without the help of a booking agent or manager. He matter-of-factly declares, “I have slept in the back seat of my car, on the tour bus, outside on the ground, hotels, motels, guest houses, in churches, church rectories, a wing off a convent, homeless shelters, even under a bridge.” It certainly isn’t the glamorous life of many secular performers as portrayed on MTV. There are definitely no all-night parties with groupies, no expensive hotel penthouses, and no stretch limousines to take artists to their gigs. On the contrary, the Catholic rock artist lives a humble, no-frills life receiving little recognition for all their hard work. A few make enough money from their ministry to support a modest life style. However, most Catholic artists must work full-time day jobs in order to pay their bills because their music just doesn’t generate enough income.
Although the financial rewards are usually minimal, and the work is hard, most Catholic artists find themselves playing for very appreciative audiences no matter what the situation. The Thirsting said that in the past three years, they have played about 200 shows. Mostly churches, retreats, youth rallies, and Christian music festivals (like the Joshua Fest in Quincy, CA, or Common Ground at Ester Short Park in Vancouver). Kyle Heimann of the group Popple says, “We are on the road for 2 months straight every summer playing at camps, and a good chunk of the weekends the rest of the year. We�ve played at retreats, conferences, youth rallies, camps, Mass, parish picnics, parties, youth nights, praise and worship events, and adoration. In 2009 we played 110 days, and with travel it was 150 days (on the road). We have played in Mexico, France, and all over the country (USA).”
By far, the largest and highest-profile concert event for Catholic rock artists to perform at is the International World Youth Day Celebration (WYD). This event is held in a different international city every two or three years, and is scheduled for Madrid, Spain in 2011. It attracts hundreds of thousands of teens from all over the world, and is also internationally televised. Artists such as Critical Mass, Rise, and Tom Booth have all had the opportunity to perform at this event over the past several years. WYD is an unbelievable chance for any artist to share their music with a young international audience. Surprisingly, even for an event of this magnitude, the performers receive little or no money. Furthermore, they are not allowed to sell any of their merchandise at WYD, and typically have to arrange for all their own travel, and housing accommodations. David Vogel performed at WYD 2008 in Sydney, Australia, but not before enduring enormous trials for months leading up to the event. He was badly injured in a severe motorcycle accident, his house was burglarized, and his band quit on him. Yet, he was so determined to play at WYD 2008 that he borrowed money against his home, and sold most of his belongings to cover the cost of the trip to Sydney.
Enduring hardships is just part of the experience. Touring is a labor of love, especially for Catholic bands that cannot turn to a tour manager, or record company to help out when they hit bumps along the way. “One time, in the middle of a spring tour of the South-west,” explains Dan Oberreuter, lead singer for The Thirsting, “we were in Flagstaff, Arizona and our bus broke down. It was really cold, about 20 degrees out and there was a blizzard ahead of us. That kind of sucked because we were supposed to have a concert in Amarillo, but our bus broke down before we got there. In hindsight, we think it was probably God protecting us from the blizzard.” The band Rise has also seen their fair share of touring disasters. They say, “We often consider ourselves as the ‘Spinal Tap’ of Catholic Music! We can write a book about the disasters and funny things that have happened to us, from traveling across the country at our own expense to perform at what was billed as a huge arena gig, but only about 6 people showed up in a venue that could have held 10,000…to Mike’s ‘exploding’ suitcase at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany!”
There are also many unexpected rewards for the brave artists who venture out on the road. As they perform in small towns and large cities across the globe, they come in contact with many different people. It’s not unusual for them to find that when they arrive at a town to perform, their music has preceded them and already touched individuals in that community. They often find that while they are ministering to their audiences with their songs, God is ministering to them as well. A beautiful example of this is retold by the members of The Thirsting: “One tour, we roll up to Dinuba, California, and this guy comes up and greets us. We’re like, ‘who is this guy? Is he part of the Church or what?’ He goes, ‘Do you know who I am?’ We say, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Well, I know who you guys are. I’ve been waiting for you guys for a week.’ Turns out, he’s a homeless guy in the area that had heard about us coming. He hasn’t had a roof over his head for 15 years. He had our concert poster on his shopping cart, and he’s a member of the parish there. He took us to the church. Everybody knew him. He helped us set up. He was just a fun guy to talk with, and hang out with. He wouldn’t accept a food offering. He said, ‘You guys need it more.’ He was the first one to greet us and the last one to see us go when we left. He gave Josh a gift: a (sweet) watch. He was the least among us…Jesus among us.”
Whether it is receiving a warm reception from an ecstatic young crowd who are witnessing their first rock concert ever, or enduring the critical comments of elderly parishioners about the evils of rock music, Catholic artists have to keep a positive attitude. Without that they would never last. They must be passionate about their music, as well as their faith. They must be firmly grounded in the belief that what they do truly matters, and playing their music for others is their calling. In regards to Catholic artist who are on the road playing their music, Tom Booth may sum it up best when he explains, “Generally speaking, these are people who have been profoundly touched by the grace of God, and feel pushed to go out and tell the world the good news. Mostly, it is work for the gospel; meeting people, listening to their stories, praying with them, giving advice and asking advice. The music is a small part of the overall picture. It is ministry, not music performance.”
World Youth Day…the numbers:
- 2000: Rome, Italy (2,000,000 in attendance)
- 2002: Toronto, Canada (800,000 in attendance)
- 2005: Cologne, Germany (1,200,000 in attendance)
- 2008: Sydney, Australia (223,000 in attendance)
- 2011: Madrid, Spain
Some of the best places to catch live Catholic rock in the US:
- 1. Steubenville Youth Conferences: Over a dozen different weekend conferences in all areas of the US.
- 2. National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC): always some of the best Catholic performers are on the agenda.
- 3. Crossroads Music Festival: One of the best-known Catholic Music Festivals in the Midwest.
- 4. Los Angeles Religious Education Congress: One of the nation’s largest Catholic Conferences with lots of good music all weekend.
- 5. Monkfest (Canada): Tons of great indie-rock Catholic style.
- 6. UNITY Awards: the United Catholic Music and Video Association’s annual awards show held in a different city every year featuring performances by a variety of Catholic artists.
Catholic Rock Fun Facts:
- One of the guitarists from the band Rise is also an LA police officer and co-founder of the Catholic record label, Spiritwing Records.
- The Catholic rocker, David Vogel recently played an original composition that is set to the poetry of Pope John Paul II for Pope Day in Warsaw, Poland.
- The lead singer of the band Critical Mass works days as a college professor.
- The duo Popple is known for their humor, and playing kazoos.
- The Thirsting had to officially discontinue “stage diving” at their concerts.
Copyright 2010 Hugh van der Linden