Life After Church: Constants for the Wanderer.

mute-math-clockwork

I first saw Mute Math in concert at The Knitting Factory, not long after I moved to New York.  I was so excited, I think I might have completely lamed out and worn a band t-shirt. I knew there was a distinct possibility that I’d be the only Black person there and I didn’t care. My live experience with this band had been years in the making and I wasn’t going to flake because of any race-related awkwardness. The fact was: I knew I belonged there. I belonged there so much, my skin prickled with goosebumps when I walked into the venue.

That I love this band is a given. They’re great showmen. Paul Meany used to do handstands on an organ at their shows. Just because. Darren duct-tapes headphones around his head during sound check, because he’s such a spastic, frenetic drummer that they’d likely fly off if they weren’t secured. Roy has an unflappable cool whether singing back-up, plucking an upright, playing bass or banging drumsticks on the sides of speakers. Greg has an open, earnest face at which you can’t help but stare when he open shows with the battle cry at the beginning of “Collapse.”

These men are an electric spectacle.

But my affinity for them goes far beyond their showmanship or their lyrics or their instrumentation (all of which are remarkable in limitless ways). You see, like Desmond Hume is to Daniel Faraday on Lost, this band is one of my Constants.

Truly, I’ve told myself on many a day, “If anything goes wrong, Mute Math will be my Constant.”

In the years leading up to the fateful move to New York that brought me face to face with my favorite band of all time, I was going through a painful separation. From my church. That’s a long, different story and one I won’t belabor here, but by the time I started grad school, I wasn’t regularly attending any church and wasn’t in any particular rush to find one after relocating.

The fact was: even when I attended church three times a week, which I’d done for the majority of my youth, I’d always felt like a bit of a misfit. For starters, I wanted to be a fiction writer—and not the kind who writes morality plays or romances where some reprobate finds faith through his love for a righteous woman. I wanted to write stories about women fighting over the death of a crack addict they’d both taken as a lover or tales about a biracial Canadian who infiltrates a slave plantation or simply stories about girls who drink beer and don’t wait until they’re married. And that didn’t really bode well for the pursuit of holiness.

So I hid my dreams of writing mainstream fiction (or my dreams of becoming a Professional Liar, depending on your point of view, I guess), and I wrote spiritual, spoken word poetry instead.

In the ’90s, rapid-fire spoken word was the thing. I came of age before the Love Jones trend hit the pulpit, so what I was writing seemed intriguing and anomalous to congregants. I penned critical poems about the trappings of materialism and greed and how true religion and undefiled before God was more about tending to the fatherless, widowed, hungry, sick, and afflicted than about building massive infrastructures within which to hold exorbitantly priced, cliché-laden mega-conferences.

People would clap at the end, but I felt largely unheard. In the intervening years, I realized that I was, in fact, noticed, if not wholly heard (and to be fair, I was quite difficult to follow with my mumbly, super-swift delivery and my inaccessible vocabulary). I’m still asked if I write these kinds of poems, poems that I felt were rebellious, anti-establishment, locust-and-honey-filled rallying cries. I do not. And mostly, I’m okay with that.

But even though I left my church and started writing whatever I wanted, rather than solely focusing on what would be acceptable to utter in front of an altar, I’ve always retained a reverence and concern for my faith and its survival—and that reverence and concern isn’t always easy to maintain.

Enter Mute Math. Well, no. Enter Earthsuit.

Before the end of my church membership run, I started broadening my musical preferences beyond “Black Gospel.” I’d wander into the Christian alternative section as often as I’d skim the racks for new Fred Hammond and Cross Movement CDs. And for my effort, I amassed quite the collection of music that seemed as torn as I was.

Around that time (post-youth group, early college), dcTalk had dropped “Supernatural” (which insisted, just before fading out, that “Some things just can’t be explained!”) and “You Consume Me” (with its quiet concession, “There’s no other way I can fly; it’s You and I.”). Sixpence None the Richer released “Dizzy,” a song with lyrics so lovely and relevant to my own experience that I still marvel when I hear them. Jennifer Knapp was singing things like, “It’s better off this way, to be deaf, dumb, and lame, than to be the way I am.” Nichole Nordeman was singing about reminding herself to tremble in reverence, lest life and doubt convince her to forget.

And then there was a little band out of New Orleans called Earthsuit.

Earthsuit featured the soul-tinged voice of a ghostly pale, platinum blonde boy named Adam LaClave and the really awkward rock-rap stylings of a gangly dark-haired guy named Paul Meany. The first strains of their debut single, “Whitehorse,” locked me in as a fan for life. “Searching high, with a yellow soul,” Adam began, “I dig for ashes in a sea of gold.”

Call me crazy, I thought, but this song sounds like it’s about me!

I was certainly feeling cowardly, alienated, and bereft. I was definitely searching through the ashes of my disappointments and doubts, while I was surrounded by things I should’ve considered treasures: a church community, loved ones, admirers, successes.

Then Adam’s voice shifted, casting out a much more hopeful note: “But I see Jesus riding on a white horse, hero calling from the sky. I see Jesus riding on a white horse, with spare room for you and I to fly.”

It was the perfect sentiment, simple, uncomplicated, and heroic. There He was, even if I was adrift, even if my soul was “yellow.” And he had “spare room” for me to fly—as though flight wasn’t even a big deal, as if it weren’t something we all longed for and struggled with for the balance of our days.

Earthsuit was a band of inner circle outsiders. They were in church, but not of it. They were making overtly Christian music, but they were torn about it. They were so much like me! I loved them!

But then they broke up.

There were four years between the dissolution of Earthsuit and the reemergence of Paul Meany as the frontman of an alt-rock band called Mute Math.

I didn’t think it odd that the new band wasn’t marketing itself as Christian. During the years between 2000 and 2004, I wasn’t really “marketing” myself as Christian, either. I still was, of course, but I wasn’t writing about it. Some days, I wasn’t even thinking about it.

And, with the exception of Nichole Nordeman, the other Christian bands I’d loved during my awkward years weren’t marketing themselves as Christian, either, by 2004. dcTalk had disbanded and the group member with whom I most connected, Kevin Max, was just… singing, in rebellion of category. Sixpence also split up. Leigh Nash, their vocalist, now sings some hybrid of pop, country, and inspirational. After Earthsuit, Adam LaClave founded two new outfits (Macrosick, which I couldn’t get into, and Club of the Sons, which I adored so much I wanted to join), but he was very insistent on referring to neither as a Christian band. And, really, no one knows what ever came of my girl, JKnapp. Last I heard, she retired.

So here came Mute Math, with their 2004 EP, Reset. My beloved Paul Meany had returned, though he’d (mercifully) abandoned his rock-rap fixation. Now, he was opting for his true singing voice—a surreal sonic force that often sounds like four-part harmony departing one throat.

Reset wasn’t a secular CD at all; songs like “Control” and “Peculiar People” made that pretty apparent. But from its inception, Mute Math resisted being labeled as a Christian band. In fact, they infamously sued Warner Bros. in 2006, after the label decided to relegate them to a Christian label. Their lawsuit seemed to symbolize a stance that has resonated with me over the years. It was like they were saying: Nothing personal, but my art is multifaceted; it’s capable of so much more than the niche to which I’ve previously confined it.

Over time, Mute Math has become certain of itself, its sound, and its purpose. Their lyrics, like all good writing, are open to interpretation. They seem to have learned, through their 2006 eponymous project, as well as their more recent contribution to the Twilight soundtrack, “Spotlight,” that good art is good faith. Art, being the byproduct of what we believe, should, when effective, effervesce that belief without explication.

I have no doubt, when I’m listening to Mute Math’s tracks that the men who created them believe in their Creator. I  know that the musicians themselves are Christians—and it’s perfectly okay that their band isn’t.

They have become what I hope I’ve become: people who believe without having to broadcast or proselytize that belief. Whenever I feel like I’ve wandered beyond the buoys and cast myself into unprotected waters, whenever I feel that I’m “not Christian enough,” whenever I wonder if I should’ve just stuck to writing my judgmental Christian poetry and left it at that, I listen to a Mute Math song and I realize I’m capable of more. I realize that my faith would be better served by creating good art rather than decent dogma. Their music grounds me–and this is why I list them among my Constants.

A few years ago, I ordered Elevator Music, a praise and worship CD from Paul Meany’s old church in New Orleans. He used to be the head musician there. The CD, an amalgam of covers and original compositions, was among the most riveting worship music I’ve ever heard. These were the kinds of un-self-conscious, tangential, conversational melodies you sing when you’re alone, without time constraint, and absolutely certain God is listening.

I listen to tracks from that when I miss the girl I used to be, the poetry girl at a pulpit, spouting rhythmic rhetoric in wholesome earnest and I wonder if Meany does the same, when he’s on a smelly Mute Math tour bus in Ohio or in a green room in Letterman’s studio.

I wondered similar things that night at The Knitting Factory when, after about four songs, the band launched into a particularly fascinating cut for me, “Noticed.” “You are reaching/something that is beating./I can’t believe I never noticed my heart before,” Paul sang. And I wept like I would’ve in a worship service.

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

9 comments to Life After Church: Constants for the Wanderer.

  • This was really interesting. I’ve never heard of the band but this makes me want to check them out.

  • Thank you for sharing this!

  • Caridad

    Yes, I enjoyed reading this.

  • Daniel

    Thanks for your writing. I’m a church-grown kid who found semblance of himself in the voices of Christian alternative artists. Now as I find myself branching out from that, I find bands like Mute Math that are doing the same. It leads me into new territory both in creating and appreciating art. Your experience is like my own and I thank you for putting it into words.

  • cddavey

    As a writer, I feel like I can say, “You’re a good writer.” Nicely crafted.

    I’ve followed these guys (Meaney, LaClave, et al.) since 2000. Their journey, and their dedication to their art, has encouraged me. My feeling is that artists, like prophets, tell the truth (in fact, I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction between the two), so the more we strive to be great artists, the more truth we tell and the better we tell it.

    Keep walking that narrow way.

  • Amanda

    i cannot agree with you more. their music moves my soul. my love for mute math began in 2004/05 when i watched them perform at a church in Alabama. “you are mine” always moves me to tears. they are definitely a “constant”!

  • Wonderful piece. I was at the same show at The Knitting Factory and have also followed the boys since the Earthsuit days. You echo my feelings and eloquently state the case. We (my whole family and myself) love these guys – they’re good human beings, good souls. Elevator Music does indeed elevate the soul. Dose it sometimes hurt to see people you care about going through spiritual struggles? Sure – if you care. Armistice was painfully honest in its portrayal of a believer in the shadowy valley of doubt. ….and yet it was so truthful and easy to relate to.
    “…Themes of conflict, resolution, responsibility, disillusionment, and, of course love, run through Armistice, perhaps best summed up by these words from “Pins and Needles” – “I’m growing fond of broken people, as I see that I am one of them – I’m one of them…” Armistice looks at a broken world and recognizes that, more often than not, the wounds are self-inflicted. “The Nerve” examines the world and proclaims, somewhat apocalyptically, “set it on fire,” but the final conclusion is that this world is “just exactly as we built it – runnin’ out of control.”
    From my review, here: http://soul-audio.com/album-reviews/08-07-2009/mutemath/
    Thanks for what you wrote here – hit the spot! I’ll bet we’ve met.

  • Danoll

    I loved this! Thank you!

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