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an interview with Terry Taylor

by Jeff Elbel

True Tunes News- Summer 1994

It is argued that the most influential name in Christian rock today is Terry Taylor. For close to twenty years, the prolific songwriter has created groundbreaking album after groundbreaking album with the seminal Christian alternative band, Daniel Amos. This month, the latest edition to the Daniel Amos catalog, Bibleland, will be released under Word Record's WAL imprint.
Unstoppable as he is, Taylor also released two highly acclaimed solo albums in the mid 80s and a host of lesser known children's projects. Two of Taylor's side projects have come into notoriety of their own in recent years. The two Lost Dogs projects continue to stand as ACM favorites, as do Let's Spin and Outdoor Elvis, the first two outings by the DA spin-off band, Swirling Eddies. In addition to the fondly awaited Bibleland, this summer also sees the release of the third Swirling Eddies project, Zoom Daddy, on Frontline Records. Add to these accomplishments the fact that Terry Taylor has developed quite a name for himself as a respected producer of broad experience. Taylor's work with established artists such as Randy Stonehill and newcomers like poor old lu has garnered much acclaim. You're looking at a man with no shortage of subjects for conversation over coffee at a Coco's restaurant in Corona Del Mar, California.

Jeff: During your career, you must have lost count of all the interviews you've given. Many artists would prefer to be left to their art, and let the work speak for itself.
Terry: It's a necessary evil, a way of letting a few folks know that you're still alive and kicking and that there's another record for the collection. As far as the songs go, I don't write in a straight line so there's a lot of room for interpretation and speculation. I think I've matured as a writer and gotten a little better handle on using the metaphor as a lyrical device. But, trying to explain a song is a little like letting the air out of a balloon. So, I'm not thrilled about explaining things but I promise I won't strangle you. I usually do have a good time doing interviews, though.
Jeff: One of the things that struck me about the new Daniel Amos album was the stark contrast in mood to the previous one, Motorcycle. Bibleland will probably not be historically referred to as “the happy album.”
Terry: Really? We should have put a big happy face on the front cover.
Jeff: As an example, the first track from Motorcycle, “Banquet at the World's End,” and the first track from Bibleland, “Broken Ladders,” share a similar theme of the end of things here, and the hope of Heaven. “Banquet” had its dark tone, but it seemed a bit more hopeful and whimsical, where “Broken Ladders” seems more yearning and weary.
Terry: That's probably true. A few tunes on the album are more personal this time. Usually I act as a sort of observer, whereas a lot of the songs on Bibleland are a little more introspective. And since I'm really just this incredibly depressed guy... (smirk)
Jeff: Have you thought about Prozac?
Terry: (laughs) Well, there's a lot of people doing it, I know that. It's the current drug of choice. People here in Corona Del Mar are really happy, peppy people; it must be flowing pretty freely around here.
Jeff: Musically, Motorcycle seemed to be a tip of the hat to a lot of your old favorites. I heard bits of Moody Blues, Beatles, and Beach Boys creeping in. Bibleland is more aggressive and modern college rock, in terms of song writing.
Terry: Well, the Moody Blues aren't really an old favorite but you got the rest of it right. With Motorcycle, we went very much in a full throttle pop direction, which we had been threatening to do for a number of years. We decided it was time to get it out of our systems, and go for the pop dream record that Daniel Amos has always wanted to do. I don't believe its just DA doing the Beach Boys/Beatles thing, although they're certainly influential. The nod in that direction is there, but it's still us. Motor Cycle is a big production piece; especially side two, where we had the Abbey Road nod, with one song going into the next song and so forth, sort of telling a story which is essentially autobiographical. With this album, we decided to go back to just getting the band in the studio, setting up, and basically doing it live, which, I think actually enhances it sonically and creates a sense of danger. The mistakes are there but they work and they're fun. It's a courageous act to leave them in. People either think you're brilliant and bold or stupid and inept and should go back in the garage. Hey, we never left it. Most of the tracks are first takes.
Jeff: How long did it take to record the album, running straight through like that?

Terry: We recorded tracks over a three day period, and we weren't in the studio for another month or so. Then we came back in and did a couple more songs. I did all the lead and background vocals myself. I took the same approach with Zoom Daddy.
Jeff: I think you succeeded in capturing that “live band” feel, especially in the rhythm tracks with Tim (Chandler, bass) and Ed (McTaggart, drums). As you mentioned, the last one stressed production quite a bit.
Terry: Most of what you're hearing is a pretty ragged four piece unit, sometimes five. I had intended to replace my scratch rhythm guitar tracks, but at some point we listened to them and went, “Nah, keep it.” It helps give the record a kind of spontaneous quality. Ed says it's his favorite DA record and to me that's due in large part to his drumming-ragged but sublime, always threatening to fall aprt, but somehow holding together.
Jeff: When you bring material to this band for a new record, how much warping comes into a song from the other members?
Terry: We've been playing together for so long, some of us for almost twenty years. Tim's going to do his thing. He's got that signature, which is sort of chaotic, but somehow works. When he's playing you feel he's going to jump off a cliff at any minute, but he just teeters there. It's exhilarating. I just know that they're going to lend their area of expertise to it. Basically, when I bring a song to the band and we rehearse, it doesn't go through any kind of radical metamorphosis. The heart of it stays the same as I present it. But it's Ed playing drums, and Tim playing bass, and Greg or Jerry playing guitar, and you put it on tape and say, “Yeah, that's Daniel Amos.” Each guy kind of lends his own nuance and I've always felt DA's limitations were its greatest asset. Recognize your limitations and you'll be liberated. You just might become a really great band.
Jeff: When I read through the material for Zoom Daddy, it didn't seem so manic this time. That element is certainly present, but overall, things were a bit more interchangeable lyrically between Swirling Eddies and Daniel Amos. What makes the distinction between the two?
Terry: The players. Maybe the mindset. We decided to avoid the temptation to do comedy this time around with Swirling Eddies. We wanted to give it more of a distinctive band signature. The tracks were recorded basically with Tim, Dave Raven, and myself, which I think gives this one more continuity to the overall feel, whereas with the other Swirling Eddies stuff, each song had its own particular kind of musical setting, like we were starting over each time we recorded another song. This is much more stripped down. The tracks breathe a lot more. I play a lot of guitar on Swirling Eddies, which I hadn't done in the past 'cause I consider myself a lousy guitar player. But I did it even though I was scared. Tim especially kept giving me the “mighty hand of the Yo” and I wound up doing a pretty good job. Today I consider myself one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived. I didn't even go through an amp, I went directly through the board. We'd just added a little reverb to it, and that's what we kept. It gives the record overall a real ethereal coloring, you know, space age, dude.
Jeff: I had been wondering if the change in emphasis had been due to the perception of Outdoor Elvis as a comedy record. There were some heavy statements there, beneath the satire.
Terry: When you do satire on a record, it becomes a focal point, especially with some of the critics. “Arthur Fhardy's Yodeling Party” would come up all the time. There are, like, four hundred songs on that record, but people would zero in on that one particular song. The Elvis record is really fairly serious. Overlooked and underappreciated. Its time will come.
Jeff: The title track to the DA project, “Bibleland,” sounds like it could be poking fun or criticizing, or perhaps just being goofy. Sometimes it's hard to read your point of view into the lyrics. There are fans who are waiting to make an epiphany out of anything that falls from the golden tongue of Terry Taylor, when you might just be having fun with something.
Terry: You have to really absorb the lyrics of that song. On the surface, it sounds like just another Daniel Amos put down of the church or something, which, by the way, is never our intention. But the song actually says something like, “behind the shabby Bible scene is something real that built a dream.” The idea there is that sometimes in our effort to represent Heaven or a spiritual idea, or to express the inexpressible, we fall short and it becomes shoddy. Bibleland represented that idea to me. There is an actual Bibleland out on the way to Palm Springs, and it's this cheesy run down, dust covered excuse for an amusement park, but I started thinking while writing this song that the guy that built this place maybe has a sincere heart, a sincere desire to say something about his faith to people who come to Bibleland. He thought maybe something would rub off. So it may be a little misguided and funky, but behind it all is the possibility that this guy has a real love for people and a desire for them to come to a knowledge of who God is.
Jeff: I didn't necessarily see the song as a grand “anti-church” thing,
but that wouldn't be uncommon in today's alternative Christian music scene.
Terry: It's healthy to be self deprecating. I'm a church member as well. Sometimes our foibles and little idiosyncrasies are things that I like to talk about, because sometimes we tend to take ourselves too seriously, as if being human in and of itself was sin. We have our problems and make mistakes. But I think that there's also a sort of maturity, at least I hope so, in how I approach the subject of the church today, as opposed to some of the cynicism that may have leaked through in the past. The church is truly God's people in all their ridiculousness and sublimeness.
Jeff: Were you brought up in the church?
Terry: No. Well, I was acquainted with the church where my mom went, which was not a good start for me. As a kid, I was deeply disturbed by what I saw going on. They would have nights of weeping and repentance. It was frightening.
Jeff: Sounds like bring a newcomer to church night!
Terry: The next experience I had was over in Dana Point where I joined Royal Ambassadors, a sort of Christian Boy Scouts thing. The kid that invited me to go to Royal Ambassadors, Roger something-or-other, was the pastor's kid. Roger's favorite thing to do when his dad asked us to stand and pray, was to cut the cheese. And inevitably, we would laugh, and we would get in trouble because we were laughing during prayer. So, that was another strange church experience. (laugh) A druggie friend of mine from high school became a Christian, and it was his testimony that had the greatest impact on me. He helped me to get away from looking at those past experiences, and look to the person of Christ; who He was, and what He did. That was refreshing and new.
Jeff: You mentioned that some of the DA tracks were more introspective than usual. “Bakersfield” must be one of those; “My friend died there, I loved him too much.”
Terry: My grandfather died in Bakersfield. We would have to travel off to Bakersfield to see him in the hospital in one of the bleakest towns on the face of the earth . He had always been a strong man, central in my life, and someone I deeply admired. To see him in that hospital, shut down the way he was, was very disturbing. It broke me down mentally, and later physically, but God brought me through it. The song and its imagery came out of the experience.
Jeff: With the references to Vin Scully in the song, I assume he was a hard line Dodger fan.
Terry: The references to (sportscaster Vin) Scully are there because my grandfather was the guy who always had Vin Scully on the radio in his garage when I was a kid. Inside his garage, the wallpaper was all baseball players and football players, that sort of thing. It's just one of those images that stayed with me. Of course, that's why I became a Dodger fan. Those were the days when we would all go down to the old Coliseum and see Duke Snyder, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale play; all those old Brooklyn boys.
Jeff: “I'll Burst your Bubble” sounds like the reaction of someone who has been both scrutinized and put on a pedestal by his fans for many years.
Terry: It's a guy being honest about himself. We let each other down; you can expect it. It has come from sometimes being put on that pedestal, which I've fought against in my writing . Be warned; don't erect the straw man and burn him down again. We're not gods; we're no better than you; we're just guys that happen to write music and put it on a CD. It's like not being able to imagine the Queen taking a dump. Listen, I don't want people's scrutiny if they think I'm some kind of Superman. I'll accept it if they realize from the outset that I'm a spiritual jackass- we all are - it's a level playing field. Really, most of our fans aren't a bunch of fanatical dumbbells. As we've received letters through our newsletter or our P.O. Box, people have shared deeply personal tragedies with us, trials that they're going through, problems that they might have, and so on, because they feel that we're kindred spirits. That to me is extremely rewarding. The fact that someone listening to a CD on the East Coast, London, or wherever, feels a kinship and gets the feeling, “I'm connected to this” is astounding.
Jeff: The band is a common ground with people you would have no contact with otherwise.
Terry: Right. We don't have tremendous record sales, but when you get a letter from someone who says, “I have cancer, and a song from one of your records really spoke to me, and ministered to my family because they're going through this with me; we don't know if I'm going to die, or whether God's going allow me to go on,” you have to just stand in awe. It's times like these that you have to forget record sales and all the other crap that goes with it, and realize that someone's life is touched here in a very important and transcendent way. Here is where real validation for what you do as an artist grips you and takes you beyond contracts and lawyers. I wish I could always live in that moment, but I don't.
Jeff: “Theo's Logic” is an interesting song. How much of that is fiction, and how much is actual experience?
Terry: The process is mysterious, you know; you're working with magic. You have a kernel of a thought. “I'd like to write a song about disagreeing with someone,” over scripture or whatever it may be. Then the images start flooding in. For instance, the line that says, “Had a quarter in my pocket, I pumped way too much gas. Like those bread and fishies, my little quarter turned to cash.” That's a true story. That actually happened. I was at a gas station. It was in the days when there was a gas shortage, and whatever you pumped in according to the meter, you had to pay twice as much as what it registered; or something like that. Anyway, I had asked to borrow some money from Ed. I was at the studio until about four o'clock that morning. I reached in my pockets, pulled my pockets out, and I had nothing. Ed says, “Well, I've got two bucks.” So, I'm all tired and burnt out, and the sun's coming up. I pull into the gas station and start pumping the gas, and I'm in a complete fog, and I've just pumped way too much, like the song says. I see the attendant coming across to get his money, and I'm thinking that I'm tired, I'm sick, and I want to go home. “I don't want to deal with this, Lord.” I reach into my pocket to take what Ed has given me , and I'm starting to come up with some explanation. I'll tell him that I'll leave my keys, or whatever I need to do. And I go like this (handing the attendant the cash), and this money literally - people are going to think I'm insane when they hear this, but this did happen - this money started blooming. I handed it to the guy, I just sort of pushed it at him. It freaked me out! He counted it out, and it was exactly what I needed to pay the guy. It sounds like that hitchhiking angel, I know, but...
Jeff: Does this sort of thing happen to you a lot?
Terry: It's happened to me on one or two occasions and always when I least expect it. As a matter of fact, that's how we're going to pay for this lunch today. I'm going to take gold bouillon out of my salad... So, that made it into the song. I just thought, here's a song about a couple of people disagreeing. Here's this guy who thinks the other guy's all wet, and vice versa. They agree to disagree, and go on with their lives. It's appropriately angry though, I guess, because it's sort of a cowpunk song.
Jeff: I think my favorite lines from Bibleland, so far, are from “Constance of the Universe:” “See that soul, give him the Word. See that jerk, gotta give him the bird.”
Terry: Ooooh! (cringe) It's a first...
Jeff: It made me < laugh. It reminded me of myself since moving to Los Angeles. I'm trying to live a Christ-like life, but I can still get so blasted angry just driving on the freeways.
Terry: Oh yeah. It's an honest lyric, which scares a lot of people. Did you hear that joke on Letterman the other night? He said, “Spring is definitely in the air here in New York. New Yorkers are all excited about summer coming, putting sun block on their middle fingers.”
Jeff: What about some of the weird lyrics and titles on the Eddies project? How, or why, on earth do you come up with a song name like, “I Had a Bad Experience with the CIA and Now I'm Gonna Show You my Feminine Side?”
Terry: With Swirling Eddies, Tim, Dave Raven, and I would go into the studio. We'd set up the drums, guitar, and bass and just start making stuff up. The first song that we did was “Zoom Daddy,” the title track. Frontline said that they needed a song for a sales conference. I did have a vocal mike up in the studio, so while I was playing with the tracks, I could shout out instructions. “Bridge!” or “chorus!” or whatever. For some reason, when it came to the chorus, I started singing “zoom daddy,” don't ask me why I did, but I did. Tim was always encouraging me. He would ask, “Why are you singing Zoom Daddy?” I would go, “I have no idea.” Then he would say, “That's great! That's the song title!” That set a precedent. For all the other songs, we'd be in the studio doing the songs, and someone would come up with a partial title, and someone else would finish it out. We'd write that down on the track sheet. I had no idea what these songs would be about. So, when we were working on “CIA,” Tim said, “This sounds like a perverted spy song. It's like, 'I had a bad experience with the CIA.' “ And I'd go, “Yeah, and now I'm gonna show you my feminine side,” and we just broke up. We thought that was great. I'd come back in and I'd look at the title on the track sheet and wonder what in the world that song was about or what possible spiritual significance could a song with that kind of a title have. After all these songs were done, track-wise, I put them on a cassette and took them home. My folks were away, so I went to their house and put the thing on, and got my notebook out with all the titles listed. It became a challenge to me, at that point, to make sense out of what these titles were, and make these songs work lyrically. That's what I did for about three and a half weeks. I was stubborn about it. I wouldn't let the title go, even when the meaning completely escaped me. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle; you find a little piece, you insert and go, “Oh, I have a corner here; I'm going to keep working that way!” It was a puzzle to be solved and I kept looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. The other challenge was that all of these songs, because of their titles, could easily be turned into some kind of satire or novelty song. I told the other guys this in the studio: “I don't want this to be a joke record. I don't want it to be Outdoor Elvis. I don't want it to feel that way to the listener,” although the titles of the songs would make it easy to just go for laughs. Our real names are on this. Camarillo's dead, but who knows, he may rear his ugly head yet.
Jeff: There's something to be said for having the comic element to draw people in, nonetheless.
Terry: Right. The first two records, though, were a little easier to write, because I decided, “whatever I want to say, I'll just say it. If it's funny, it's funny. If it's not, it's not.” It's so loose. This was much more constricting, but I don't think I've written better lyrics than the lyrics on Zoom Daddy.
Jeff: Because you had to put the puzzle together.
Terry: Had to make it work. Had to take those song titles and make
sense out them. I didn't want to make it a “funny” record. It's the most challenging, lyrically speaking, I've ever come up against,and the most satisfying as a songwriter. I'm very, very happy with the work that I did on it. I worked hard. The discipline definitely worked to my advantage. When I played the songs for Tim Chandler, who probably didn't think that I was seriously going to keep those titles, he was staggered by what had been accomplished. I was, too. Sometimes, like I've said, it's the visit of the muse. You get into a rhythm. I don't think there's a songwriter alive that the thought doesn't cross his mind that this time nothing may come. It's like when you have a child and you count the toes, you sit down, and it flashes for a split second, “What if there's nothing here?” For some reason, especially on Zoom Daddy, it was like being on a roll and not quite knowing why. That's hard to explain. Part of song writing is the discipline. Practically speaking, you've got to learn from past mistakes. Don't get lazy and settle for cliches , and be willing to throw something out that doesn't work. The discipline will take you so far, and then you hope and pray the magic takes over. The muse comes; God blesses you, however you want to say it. I felt God was with me in it. I wouldn't say God gave me the songs; I wouldn't want to be presumptuous or insulting to Him, but he definitely kept me alert and kept me excited, you know, elevated and inspired me.
Jeff: While you're waiting for the muse to show up, or between albums, how do you approach lyric writing or idea gathering?
Terry: I think it's being in tune to the mysteries of life or in tune to yourself, because God is moving like a ghost through the daily routine of it and leaving behind his imprint. You've got to consciously look for it. I may be as in the dark as you are, really, because it's one of those mysterious things that just happens. The practical plays the biggest part in creating a song writer out of a sow's ear. Again, the process of having gone through the fires of writing songs that today make me cringe is very helpful.
Jeff: When you're writing more traditionally, do you have favorite
themes that get you started, or give you a point of reference?
Terry: I just try to bring it all together. For the past several years, I've been trying to merge the heavenly with the earthly, the sacred with the mundane, and the mystery of life. I've been trying to see God's hand in the ordinary things of life. I would say that transcendence is my personal theme. I want to see God in and through it all. I need to in order to survive as an artist.
Jeff: That may contribute to what I've seen in your recent work. I see the trend of someone who sees things and may become somewhat despondent or depressed by them, but never despairs. There's always hope.
Terry: That's right, absolutely. I think that's been the running theme in my own heart for a number of years now. I think that's come with age and experience, and just being able to look at the little things that God has blessed me with, and say that those are perhaps the most meaningful things in my life. Especially with my family.
Jeff: Do either of your children want to follow in your footsteps?
Terry: Andrew is learning guitar. Noelle dances and sings, so we'll see. I'm just going to tell them, “Don't get in a Christian rock band. Avoid at all costs. I want you to know the Lord, but don't get in that van! Don't go on tour. Unless you have a good merchandising plan; then go for it, son.”
Jeff: Are you fairly happy now with what you're able to accomplish with Daniel Amos, in terms of reaching the audience you'd like to reach? Is it still a struggle to gain more ground each time out?
Terry: I'm content. I'm a very content person in terms of what I'm doing. I think that anything mainstream is going to come out of left field. I suspect that it will be something like Lost Dogs; like Geffen Records will say, “we've got the Lost Dogs CD, and we want to sign you guys to a contract.” It's not going to be one of those things where you're awake at night going, “Gee, I hope this happens. Oh God, oh God, if there is a God, gimme a contract!” I think any artist, though, wants their sculpture to be admired. They want a lot of people to walk up to it and say, “He did a great job.” That's fulfillment. I wouldn't lie about that. But I'm not as antsy as I used to be about the whole thing. I'm a little more content. At peace. We live in a fairly affluent area. I'm sort of the oddball guy of the town. There are a lot of yuppies here; professional people, doctors, and lawyers. I go to the baseball games, and they're all in their suits, and I'm who I am. I'll tell you, I've talked to a few of them, and they're very envious of what I do. “You mean, you make music, and that's what you do for a living?” And it'll dawn on me, “Yeah, that's what I do for a living.” I could be going to Fashion Island to work in one of the offices with my suit on, and playing that game. So, it does crash in on me every once in a while how fortunate I am. It has its struggles like anything else, but basically, I enjoy getting up in the morning and going to do what I do.
Jeff: The first time I ever saw you was at the 1992 Cornerstone
Festival, when you played a midnight tent show with the Lost Dogs. You stepped up to check your monitor and said “I'm a rock star, I'm a rock star.”
Terry: (laugh) We have fun. We have a good time. I'm a rock star!