Preaching to the Choir
Quiet Company sets its monster free
Here's how you alienate the meager fan base you've managed to develop as an independent rock band struggling to make a career in the bleak-as-hell music industry of 2012:
First, you cultivate that fan base by filling your debut album with references to God and angels, releasing it on Christian rock label Northern Records (home to DC Talk's Kevin Max), and promoting it at the Cornerstone Festival put on by Jesus People USA.
Next, you follow it up with a well-received second album that continues to bring the religious imagery to the forefront without addressing the fact that your lead singer and songwriter is steadily losing his faith.
Finally, you sign an artist development deal with music streaming website Grooveshark to release your third album and fill it with songs that repudiate – often with extreme bitterness – the Christianity you once shared with your fans.
If you're Austin's Quiet Company, you do all this with the keen awareness that it could have dire repercussions for the career you've worked so hard to build – and you do it while also putting out the best album of that career.
Taylor Muse isn't a Christian – not anymore – and Quiet Company, the band he formed in 2006 with guitarist Tommy Blank, has never been a Christian band. That's something he's quick to stress, though the band's pedigree makes that seem like a distinction without a difference.
Muse, 30 this month, grew up in East Texas – Tyler – and still carries the accent. He played in East Texas indie rock bands, including as a brief bass fill-in for Eisley, and after watching his friends in the Lonely Hearts move to Nashville and quickly sign to a label, he took his own band, the Connotations, to Tennessee.
"Everyone hated it there," he says of the year spent there.
The band didn't survive the ensuing move to Austin, but Muse recorded Quiet Company's debut, Shine Honestly, big on mythic imagery. Both it and the follow-up three years later, 2009's Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, draw primarily from what Muse today describes as "Christian mythology." On the first album, songs like the dreamy, guitar-driven ballad "We Change Lives" are full of angels, heaven, and hallelujahs. Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon ends with the lines, "Oh, there must be a god, somewhere in the universe/ May be looking after me/Yeah, he may be smiling down on me/Hallelujah."
"I've always fallen back on religious imagery as a songwriting tool, just because it was familiar to me and I liked the aesthetic of it," says Muse. "And we were on Northern Records and played Cornerstone."
This attracted a devoted fan base full of Christian kids who love the way contemporary indie music sounds but who want a little more Jesus in their rock, and whose parents often regulate what they're allowed to listen to. Muse was one of those kids himself – in his Cedar Park living room, there's still a wall of CDs full of Christian music – so he wrote songs like those in his record collection. He may not have considered Quiet Company a Christian band, but the fans who painstakingly transcribed his lyrics onto websites and boosted the band to the top of Grooveshark's charts did.
After the release of the band's third full-length, We Are All Where We Belong, in October, those people don't identify Quiet Company as making Christian music anymore.
"I get a lot of email about it from people now," admits Muse. "Christians apologizing to me: 'I'm so sorry for whatever experience in the church that made you feel this way. Please don't write off God because you had these bad experiences.'"
They're responding to Muse's excoriation of Christianity, which occurs throughout We Are All Where We Belong. The imagery, once flowery and biblical, now roils aggressively secular. On "Set Your Monster Free," a lovely acoustic ballad, Muse refutes the existence of angels he sang about in Shine Honestly's "Tie Your Monster Down," telling his 3-year-old daughter Harper that, "You don't have to waste your life/Holding on to beautiful lies."
On "The Easy Confidence," he sings that "If Jesus Christ ever reached down and touched my life/He certainly left no sign to let me know he had," and shreds his delicate vocals as he screams his rage: "I've got a bone to pick, and I want to pick it clean/Oh, the prodigal son and his shameful disbelief."
Muse says he's encouraged by the dialogue that's occurring now – he responds to every email he gets – and that these fans aren't outraged. Mostly, people who email him "love the record. They're just concerned about me."
All That You Can Leave Behind
Without spiritual concerns weighing on him, Muse focuses on things like his band's artist development deal with streaming music service Grooveshark, which helped fund We Are All Where We Belong (they ponied up the cash for Tim Palmer to mix the album, a service he also performed for U2 on All That You Can't Leave Behind) and pressing the LP as a double-gatefold vinyl. It also helps Quiet Company land the occasional licensing deal to place songs in video games or on episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
"That's the only place there's money left," offers Muse.
Grooveshark's support is vital to Muse's vision of how the band could evolve into a career. Currently, he works a full-time job as an insurance adjuster, and it's clear that spending so much time away from his family, between the day job and his responsibilities with the band, eats at him. Muse dreams of the day he can divide his time between house husband and full-time songwriter, paying the bills with licensing deals and the occasional tour.
"Everything we do now is a sacrifice toward not having to work the other job and just getting to do music," he stresses.
Being able to spend more time with Harper seems to be the eye-on-the-prize for Muse.
"When we first found out that we were having a girl, he was not very excited about it," admits his wife, Leia Muse. "He wanted a boy to play with and sword fight with and read comic books to. Now, he's finding that he can have all of those things with Harper, because those are her favorite things. He plays with her all the time."
The birth of his daughter nearly three years ago was also the catalyst for Muse finally breaking from the faith he was raised in. Yet, he explains, it didn't start there. In fact, his struggle to accept that he wasn't a Christian predates not only the songs that make up We Are All Where We Belong, but also the very formation of Quiet Company.
"I'd been questioning it, and dealing with it internally – for years," he reveals.
After discovering authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins in his early 20s, he allowed himself to ask those questions more seriously. All of this came to a head, finally, when Leia was eight months pregnant.
"I got to the point where I hadn't really felt like a Christian in years," he says. "I hadn't been brave enough to pursue it any further, but once my parents started asking me questions about if we were going to start going to church once Harper was born, I realized I don't want her to go to church."
That's a theme that runs deep throughout We Are All Where We Belong.
"I don't want her to believe these things," Muse asserts purposefully. "I don't want her to be ashamed based on a 2,000-year-old book that has no relevance in our lives. It'd been a source of anxiety and depression in my life, because I wanted it to be true so bad, and I was constantly trying to force the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality.
"I didn't want that for her."
Quiet Company's Christian fans might see an irony to the way We Are All Where We Belong sounds. The quintet's first two discs are steeped in religious symbolism and Christian imagery. We Are All Where We Belong, meanwhile, is the first one to mention Jesus Christ by name if only to declare Muse doesn't believe in him anymore. Furthermore, the music he wrote to express the process of shedding his identity as a Christian is the most anthemic and joyful of his career. Shine Honestly displays none of Muse's internal conflict about religion in its quiet, almost pained contemplativeness. We Are All Where We Belong, meanwhile, treats its low-key moments as lullabies and its bombastic ones as hymns to the beauty of secular love. For Muse, that's not irony because casting off religion as he did has been a process of seeking joy.
"I see the record as this celebration of humanism and humanity," he confesses. "It's a triumphant record, to me. I'm not sitting around like, 'Oh, I lost my faith! Where is it?' I don't miss it at all. I'm much happier now than I ever was trying to make those pieces fit."
In 2005, Tommy Blank moved to Austin from San Antonio "with the specific intention of joining bands."
"I was auditioning for blues bands, country bands, cover bands – I was just trying to play with whoever I could," he recounts. "I ran into Taylor on Craigslist."
The dreamy indie rock that Muse was interested in was a little outside of Blank's wheelhouse, but he gave it a shot.
"I wasn't sure this was the style of music I wanted to be playing, but there was something to the songwriting – these were catchy hooks, and the lyrics were strong, so I branched out."
Blank and Muse are the founding members of Quiet Company, though the band has shuffled through other members in its various incarnations. The current lineup has been consistent for several years: Muse on vocals, guitar, and piano; Blank's keyboards and guitar; Matt Parmenter, whose home studio also serves as the band's base for recording, the bassist; Jeff Weathers on drums; and Cody Ackors as the full-time trombonist.
Ackors, Weathers, and Parmenter, like Muse, all honed their skill by playing in church bands as teenagers.
"All of us except this heathen [Blank]," laughs Parmenter.
While Quiet Company's Christian identity had faded by the time they all joined the band, the idea of having a number of Christian fans never seemed strange to them.
"I don't think it's weird that we have a Christian fan base by any means," Weathers says. "There's not even a line [between us], from my perspective."
"I feel like we all kind of shared the same perspective as Taylor about the songs and the feelings," Parmenter adds
So has Muse simply replaced his faith in god with a faith in his band's potential?
"Faith, to me, is believing in something in lieu of evidence," he counters. "I think 'trust' is a better word. We're five guys who believe in each other. We worked hard all the years of our youth practicing our instruments so that we're good. I get onstage and I trust those guys to perform well, and they trust me to write good songs. I don't think it's faith, because there's evidence involved. Probably the closest thing I have to faith is an admiration for humanistic ideals and the scientific method."
Quiet Company definitely performs well – in suits, ties, and beards that give them a stark, professional look. Muse sways as a guitar player, looking like he's about to start speaking in tongues. He carries a stage presence that speaks to all the time he spent in church. When songs call for their soaring choruses, Parmenter, Blank, and Weathers play the part of choir, Akors blowing the trombone rhapsodically. Watching Quiet Company onstage, it's hard sometimes not to use religious language to describe them.
How, exactly, does the scientific method play into this?
"It resembles faith in the sense that hope is involved," explains the frontman. "You're investing a lot in something you don't know for sure. A lot of good bands could use that argument and still not be successful.
"Just because the music industry has changed, it doesn't mean that success is less attainable. We just have to change our idea of what success is. I don't need a beach house in Maui. I just need to pay the rent on this one."