It's a dual-edged sword, being a critic's favorite," says Michael Hawkins, "One one hand, it's like being told that what you're doing is important, musically. On the other hand, it's even more meaningful and important if you don't sell records and famish. Critics dig knowing the Best Band that Never Was."
Hawkins would know. He and the rest of the members of sundays child were critics' favorites for years, lauded in 1995 by True Tunes News as being close to a record deal, and one of the best new bands at Cornerstone. CCM Magazine, hm Magazine, and others piled on the praise for the band's indie debut, Just a whisper ..., only the second non-Choir release produced by Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty at Neverland in California. Even listening to it today, Hindalong muses, "That was a really good record."
And for a while, it had to feel somewhat successful: sundays child toured in front of The Choir and Hoi Polloi, played the famed Mommapalooza show in Atlanta with Prayer Chain, Luxury, The 77's, and Piltdown Man, hired Chris Colbert as traveling soundman, and booked into several major events including Midtown Music Festival - Atlanta's annual music bash that draws millions and shuts down about a mile of area in town.
The band brought guests out onstage, including Bill Mallonee from Vigilantes of Love, Kenny Hutson (now also with VOL), and others. Yet, somehow having compatriot musicians and complimentary critics didn't convince record execs to give the band a whirl. And the long and short of it is that years of touring and recording, within and without the Christian market brought the band a core audience of a couple of thousand listeners, who, along with the curious, spread themselves out among shows across the Southeast but couldn't sustain the band. And after a few false starts with various labels, including recordings done for Flying Tart, and for a new experimental microphone that never saw the light of day, and too much of the road, the band simply stopped.
After a few months of inactivity, in 1995, a call came in from Europe booking the band to shows in Holland including mainstage and a side stage at Flevo Totaal Festival. The decision to go wasn't unanimous -- lead singer Hurst Peacock was knee deep in solo work and opted out. David Vanderpoel, more of a utility musician and co-writer at that point took his first plunge into singing lead.
"It was a heck of a debut show -- over eight thousand people at Flevo's main stage at 7:30pm, and a live broadcast over Holland and Germany," he says. "But we had figured, 'What a way to wrap this whole thing up ...' and knew that if we could punk the show up some, do some outrageous things, that we could survive the European run and end on a high note. And in truth, listening back to the recordings from Europe, there were some really good moments -- especially within the acoustic set and the Adam Again cover, 'Don't Cry.'"
The papers that ran the next day (the same ones that had reviewed American bands with headlines that read, "Stay at Home") declared that sundays child was a "harder, louder U2."
The band returned, roughed out the new songs on tape with stand-in bass players (Scott Rhodes moved away and was never heard from again), and then all returned to music industry day jobs, occasionally working together on projects, including the production duties on L.S. Underground's Bring It Down Now.
"Well, what happened is that we all took some time away and really got into our own things," said Vanderpoel, "Both musically and at work, and we developed our relationships with each other as friends and musicians in working on other people's work, a lot of which got passed around anyway, and a good deal at each other's invitation. What we eventually discovered was that the divergent styles of music that we had all been into before -- we'd begun to all slide toward a common center, musically: short, hooky simple pop songs; singable voices, melodic guitars, and lots of very stupid, up stuff. 'Chewing bubble gum,' I guess."
Bulletboy came to the table with a deal, and the band signed and headed to the studio to record their first pop record. To further shake up the process, Hawkins took on the role of bass player in addition to his drumming, making the move a permanent one live where Matt Goldman (who tracked three of Now Then's songs on drums) plays drums. Vanderpoel was equally new to tracking vocals, forcing the band into simpler parts, and more reliance on song than on virtuosity.
Guitarist and studio owner-engineer J.C. Richardson described the new songwriting process:
"A lot of writing pop songs is knowing when to stop. Rock has become this monster production, because it can be. But it can also be overwhelming. So we forced ourselves into constraints that didn't allow us time to make that mistake," he said. "Writing songs for this record was kind of like the way they must write episodes for Seinfeld. It was like, 'Okay, how about this [chord] change here, and we'll do it in 6/8 time? Blam, that's a song. ' [laughs] You know, 'Alright, Jerry, Elaine and George are waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant. There's an episode.'"
Yet, the album remains a concept album, a story album actually, as a retelling of the Prodigal Son story from the Gospel of Luke, this time set in the mid 1970s version of Las Vegas.
Vanderpoel explains, "Well, in many respects, we made this record backwards. The whole story of the record was largely borne from the cover, which was finished the day we agreed to do the project. I have been fascinated by the allure of Vegas on the American psyche, especially as I experienced it when my parents went there in the 1970's and I was the recipient of countless kiddie interpretations of the town via View Masters, and handheld games like the roulette wheel on the cover. It was all bright lights and Disney to me, yet somehow adult without my knowing exactly why.
"So, anyway, the cover was borne from the contradiction of a high stakes game, dumbed down to innocent standards -- a good metaphor for a lot of what we as Christians are guilty of doing. But when I was in Nashville, presenting this album's content to industry, a mere three songs of it done back at home, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was tell a story - something only heavy-handed bands like Pink Floyd generally do. It's rarely done in pop - I think David & David did once ... So I went through my lyrical notes and found that the material was there for a prodigal story, and we ran with it."
Prodigal stories are actually one of those cross-cultural metaphors that exist throughout writing through the ages. Like coming-of-age stories, and the three-act hero drama. In a way, a lot of standards could be Prodigal stories: what about On the Road, Bonnie and Clyde, Catcher in the Rye, The Odyssey ...
"Those have most of the elements,"Vanderpoel says, "but there is one key one -- repentance. A lot of stories have elements of leaving home (which isn't inherently wrong), going to Sin City (which is often wrong), and coming home. The key is that in the Prodigal's case, the hero has to fail, and fail badly. He has to completely bottom out, repent, and require the salvation that swoops in to save his sorry self. There is a morality play in a Prodigal story where, despite the exciting ride, you leave glad you're not him. Or maybe you are and you leave praying for some salvation yourself."
Just as importantly, the album-length story format provides sundays child with the freedom to not have to wrap up a story neatly within the space of a song -- fortunate since most of them clock in at under three minutes. Hawkins explains that the short song idea is a vehicle for more, not less creativity, "It's like, between us and the audience, we offer up a melody idea to them saying, 'Here's this tune - what do you think of that? Okay, here's another - like this? If you don't, we can keep rolling 'cause we've got a bag over here with dozens more,' as opposed to a few big monoliths where we are in effect saying, 'And we can do this to it, and we can do that to it, and we can change keys, and we can transpose it so just the oboes carry the tune ...' "
Richardson concludes, "Rock and Roll should be fun. For the first time, we've written a record that our wives really dig. These songs sound good in mono, on cheap car stereos, and when anyone sings them. That's pop music - that's 'When You Wish Upon a Star.' "