As I enter Will McGinniss' 1930's-era bungalow where Audio Adrenaline is rehearsing, I am struck by two things. One is how sparsely it is furnished - a simple couch facing a burning fireplace in the living room, not a stick of furniture in the dining room. the other is the huge black fan face down on the hardwood floor over a vent into the basement, an ambitious attempt to force warm air to where there is none.
I walk downstairs into the cold basement (obviously the fan trick isn't working) and take a seat on the steps as the band members introduce themselves. They then return to their task at hand - auditioning a drummer for the upcoming leg of their seemingly-endless touring schedule.
When I agreed to meet them at rehearsal and then interview them over lunch, I had pictured a rehearsal hall. Something big where they stand up there, and I say back where I always do during a show. Nope. I was on the steps, five feet away at the most, in a chilly gray basement with a couple of t-shirts and a pair of socks drying over the water pipes hanging from the ceiling. They were sitting on their amps and folding chairs, plugged in, turned on and playing loud. Very loud. The kind of loud that makes your clothes vibrate.
My own private concert.
There weren't any spotlights or fog machines, no pyrotechnics or big speakers. They weren't dancing around, Will's hair wasn't swirling about like a cheerleader's pompom, but the essence of their music was all right there in full force. Audio Adrenaline playing its brand of high energy rock 'n' roll with catchy melodies, driven by the seamless blend of Will's bass and Barry Blair's lead guitars. The group is rehearsing songs from its new record, bloOm. The title fits for, both as a band and as individuals, they have grown into a new phase of life.
Since recording 1993's Don't Censor Me, all four members have married, and lyricist/keyboardist Bob Herdman has a new son, Waylen. Don't Censor Me and 1992's Audio Adrenaline are described by the band as "cheerleader songs," aimed at the young audience that they themselves were a part of not too long ago. bloOm stretches the band - it's more mature lyrically, more personal, raw, revealing - reflecting the changes in the members' lives.
It's been a big year for Audio Adrenaline. Don't Censor Me has been a wild success, selling more than 250,000 copies. The band received numerous Dove Award nominations, a Billboard Music Award nomination, contributed a song to last year's One Way: The Songs of Larry Norman, released the Live Bootleg record, opened for DC Talk on the Free At Last tour and the Newsboys' Going Public tour, wrote and recorded bloOm and learned to snowboard.
These guys have come a long way in a short time and seem to be handling it fairly well. While the skyrocket success Will, Bob, Barry and lead singer Mark Stuart are experiencing commercially has its benefits (they are each in the process of buying houses for the first time), it has not come without struggles: developing their own musical identity, coming out for the shadow of DC Talk, grappling with their own shortcomings, and embracing God's grace to walk them through those times.
Living the Dream
Bob Herdman had a dream. He wanted to be in a band. Except he didn't sing and couldn't play and instruments. Kind of a critical element, wouldn't you think?
But he wrote lyrics and poetry and had a lot of song ideas in his head.
Mark, Barry and Will )whom they all call Bill for some odd reason) were attending Kentucky Christian College and playing in a band called A180. Bob approached them and asked if he could pay them to record a song he had written called "My God" - a curious marriage of heavy metal and rap. Shortly afterward, A180 asked Bob is he would join the band as a lyric writer, and they became Audio Adrenaline - and Bob began the long process of learning to play keyboards and guitar chords.
The "My God" tape wound up in the hands of Toby McKeehan, whom the band had met after a DC Talk concert at KCC in 1989. Toby passed the tape on to the brass at Forefront, DC Talk's label, and in due course Audio Adrenaline was signed there as well.
"My God" was the first song to go on the debut album Audio Adrenaline. Problem was, they didn't have any other material like it. "We had no idea what we were doing," chuckles Mark. "Forefront signed us to do this rap/metal stuff, and we only had one song."
Barry adds, "They saw the potential for a good band. We thought 'If they liked "My God," we'll send them more songs like that.' So we started sending them all these weird, strange songs of all kinds of mixes. They got a good laugh at them. And we went through this big, long process of getting to where we are now, of creating music we like, not music we think is what they would like."
For fans who love their albums, it might be hard to understand why a band would not love all their own work. Making an album seems like it would be glamorous and fun and, well, so cool. But like any job there are things you are more or less pleased with, and things you look back on as downright embarrassing. These guys are not shy at all when it comes to expressing their feelings about their first record.
"If it was up to me," Barry declares, "I would burn them all, make them disappear. It did well, it sold 75,000 units. But a lot of people don't understand. It is more than about it being a good record. It's about it being a true representation of us. There it nothing personal about that record."
Telling the Truth
While they all agree that Don't Censor Me was closer to their hearts than Audio Adrenaline, it still didn't hit the mark from their point of view. Mark says, "Off the last album there are really only a few songs I love to play live. I like to do 'Big House,' 'We're a Band' and 'Scum Sweetheart.'"
Ask about "Jesus and the California Kid," and you hear groans all around the table. "To stand up and sing that song was pure agony," Mark adds, laughing. A healthy portion of their distaste for those songs is likely due to the fact that they have played them night after night after night for almost two years straight. bloOm is another matter entirely, "There are about eight that we love to play," explains Will. "We feel bad if we can't play them all in a show."
So if bloOm truly represents them as people, what does it say? That they are men. That they fail, they need God's grace and want to share it with others on this ride called life. I once was lost in a foaming, roaming, rabid sea/Then blooms blossomed, changed my outlook, now I've been set free/I've got a secret and I cannot keep it is the opening lyric to the album, and it seems to sum up the message. Life is tough, and men will fail. But God is good.
"Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus" is one of those songs that you catch yourself singing in the shower a couple of days after hearing it: I could move to Hollywood, get my teeth capped/I know I could be a big star on the silver screen - just like James Dean/I could be anything but one thing's true/Never gonna be as big as Jesus/Never gonna gold the world in my hand. Later in the song, I could write a million songs all designed to glorify/I could be about as good as any human could, but that won't get me by.
Being good is something they know about. Mark, Bob and Barry each grew up in Christian homes and accepted the Lord at a young age with a stronger faith developing as they matured. But they knew little of God's grace other than hearing the word mentioned. "It was preached, but it was not good news. The message was you have got to be good," Mark remembers. "There are a lot of good points about that church, but more emphasis on how to get saved than living saved. Both are important." On the other hand, Barry says "Some churches are totally opposite - it is all happy-fun-nothing-to-worry-about, and that is not right either."
They don't seem to have any trouble facing their own weaknesses, at least on paper. On "See Through" they sing, There are things I can't hide, that would make some people think I've lied/I try to do right but I fail/Don't set your eyes on me/You should look through me, and you'll see what I want to be. Baring one's soul in public doesn't tend to be the most accepted method for selling Christian records. But like their label mates DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline's in-your-face honesty seems to work. down to earth is what they call it. It's a combination of admitting weakness and pointing to God as a source of life and help. The members of Audio Adrenaline looks at what they do as a ministry. Entertainment, yes. But a ministry foremost.
Walking in the Shadows
But DC Talk has influenced Audio Adrenaline in more ways than just song writing. It could be said that group changed the lives of these four. They were signed to Forefront with Toby's help. Later, after they developed a friendship with DC Talk members, they were asked to open for the Free at Last tour. And AA is far from ungrateful.
"They have had a huge influence on our career," Mark says. "God had used them to promote us, and we definitely want to promote their ministry, too. They have a lot of integrity, and we have learned a lot from those guys. When I watch a DC Talk show, I am so impressed. And we have seen them go platinum and still remain focused on God." It's not an east task. Mark continues, "The problem with being successful to support your family is that you have to become popular, yet we are supposed to become less so that Christ becomes bigger." For the time being, these two bands share a record label, artist management, tour together and snowboard together. You'd almost think they were family. And they are, sort of. Just over a year ago, Mark married Kerri McKeehan, Toby's sister.
But could they be following a little too closely in the shadow? Bob's eyes get big. "You must have been in a corner of my house because we just talked about this!"
They admit to feeling a little frustrated by it. "Up until this point it's been great to be in their shadow. It's a great shadow to be in," explains Mark. "But at a certain level it really does need to change to be where we grow into our own. We deal with this a lot with the record label. When you are on a record label with one of the [fastest-rising] Christian bands of all time, you are always going to be in the shadow. We would like to be recognized as Audio Adrenaline instead of 'the band that opens for DC Talk.'"
Granted, DC Talk remains a pretty long stick to be measured against. "They have one of the best bands in the USA," explains Will. "It is a lot of pressure to [watch them] be so tight. We want to be tight but are also trying to find the balance of putting trust in God." Mark adds, "You can get complex when you hear them sing these lines and licks that go all over the scale, and here I am all hoarse."
In spite of their desire to come into their own, their plans now include the spring leg or DC Talk's Jesus Freak tour. "We believe that God wants us to be on this tour again because a lot of good things happen besides just big shows," says Mark. Barry adds, "This tour is a great opportunity for us. But later this year we want to step out on our own and do a headline tour." The specifics of that tour are still in the works, but if their past success is any indication, there is no need to worry. They'll be headed to a city near you.
Holding Mercy's Hand
Two days after our interview I catch up with Audio Adrenaline in Clearwater, Fla. where they are performing in front of a couple of thousand fans. The room is bigger - and definitely warmer - than Will's basement. And again they play loud. The kind of loud that makes the walls vibrate. Between songs, Mark and Will tell of God's powerful hand of mercy that is willing to help anyone who asks.
Al Baca, who has fallen into the role of "road pastor," is standing in the wings watching. Al does a lot for the band members, including changing guitar strings, but his most important job is to keep their feet on the ground. "Being on stage is one of the worst places to be as a Christian," Mark confides. "To go on a stage when it is dark and have the anticipation of 5000 kids screaming and knowing you are going to rock 'n' roll can really mess you up in the head." Al encourages them with one-on-one accountability, regular group Bible studies and the occasional apt word spoken softly. Mark continues, "One of the biggest things [Al does] for me is right before I go on stage. He always has a word that pierces my heart and reminds me of why I go on stage."
Playing for the right reason is a subject Audio Adrenaline members return to often. It isn't always easy, but their aim is true. And when they fall short, they land on the grace that's brought them this far.
"Sometimes you do go out there for the wrong reason," admits Mark. "We have talked about this a lot. Gor can still work through that. I analyze everything, and if it isn't perfect, it stresses me out. But Bob will remind me it isn't about us singing, or playing good, it is about what God can do."
By Marykay Selby