Although Christian rock band Kutless is known for playing the kind of loud, hard music that angers some Christians, the bandmates actually began their career as a college worship band. Their latest album, "Strong Tower," can best be described as a return to their roots. They've modernized such popular praise songs as "We Fall Down" and "Better is One Day" by playing them with heavy guitars and drum beats. And although the band has faced criticism both for its hard sound and for "selling out," since worship albums are so popular and profitable today, lead singer Jon Micah Sumrall says he won't let critics of his band dictate what, or how, they'll play.

Currently on tour and scheduled to appear at the upcoming Luis Palau Festival in Washington, DC, on October 8th, Sumrall spoke to Beliefnet about his favorite way to worship and the Biblical evidence he's found to support rock music.

It seems that there's more Christian rock bands than ever before. And there's also been a big boom with worship and hymn albums over the past couple of years. What's your take on this sudden interest in Christian music?

I think there's been several things that have happened that have opened the minds of mainstream media and mainstream people. I remember when 9/11 happened I was seeing Scripture verses all over the news. Suddenly people were more open to the idea of God.

There's been a lot that's happened in the world over the past five or six years and there's a lot of hurting people out there who are searching. Suddenly a positive message can be encouraging and better received-even if people don't agree or hold onto it.

v I also think Christian music, as a whole, has just gotten better. There's more bands and more genres of music. There's a lot of bands hat have come up in the Christian music industry that are just as good, if not better, than a lot of mainstream bands out there. If the music is good enough people will play it because they enjoy it. And to a mainstream listener that's essentially the entire reason for listening to music-enjoyment.

With "Strong Tower" you've gotten criticized for jumping on the worship album bandwagon. Plus, you've done something radical with traditional songs-they're a lot harder musically than a lot of the other remade worship songs. Do you think it's almost taboo to do something like that?

Yeah. A lot of people, especially in the rock-and-roll community, don't want you to sell out, and sometimes that can even be selling out for radio. But the thing is, we can't let those kinds of people dictate what we do with our music.

A worship record is something we've wanted to do since we've started. It was something that we always planned on doing, we just hadn't necessarily planned on doing it so early in our career. The label just felt like now was a really good time to do it. And so we decided to go ahead and do it now.

We knew going into it that we were going to get some criticism because there has been this worship movement-everybody's doing a worship record. So going into it we wanted this to definitely be us, definitely different than what everybody else is doing. I think the worship feel has almost become its own genre. There's a certain sound...

Kind of like CCM, right?

Yeah. When you listen to all the worship CDs that are out now, they all have this similar sound. All of them. And so we really wanted to do something that was really fresh, really different sounding. We want to make this really, genuinely Kutless and something that some of the younger people-and people who enjoy heavier music-could enjoy and worship to.

I found in my own life, some of the best worship times are just opportunities when the music has been cranked up loud and I'm able to sing along at the top of my lungs and emotionally vent and let go.

And so it's been really cool just to hear feedback now. A lot of people have listened to our record and are able to do just that, where they just pour their hearts out before God, singing along, just cranking the CD up. The edgier sound, to me, conveys more emotion, and I know it does for a lot of our listeners. It's been really cool to hear how it's blessed people.

Did you have other reasons for doing the album?

We really wanted to do a edgier, heavier sounding worship record. That was always our intent.

I was in high school when the first Sonic Flood album came out and it was kind of revolutionary. I led worship in my church, and everyone was like, "This is so edgy," so heavy for worship at the time. And so we were really hoping to take that to the next level. Music overall seems to have gotten a little bit edgier as far as what's acceptable on Top 40 mainstream radio. I've even noticed a bit of a shift on Adult Contemporary stations to a slightly edgier sound.

The two albums before "Strong Tower" are more along the lines of what's popular now in Christian rock-songs that have Christian messages but aren't necessarily proselytizing. Do you plan to go back to that style on your next album?

Yeah, I think our message lyrically has always been balanced. I feel [while] it is important to reach out to people who aren't Christians, people don't want to be preached at-they want to be loved on.

Praising the Lord with "the loud clanging of cymbals"

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  • I could go down to the street corner and yell and scream at people and the amount of people who are going to respond to that is probably not going to be very high. In fact, when I see that kind of stuff happen, it's turning people away from the very thing you're trying to bring them towards. I've found in my own life, that simply loving on people-letting people know that they're loved is really the most effective thing I can do as a Christian. [Also] just living by example and sharing with them the love of Christ.

    I don't feel like our message is masked at all. I think it's very obvious and very plain, but at the same time, I don't feel like it's offensive or intrusive. I think it's just a loving message, trying to reach out to people.

    Do you aspire for the band to go mainstream?

    Should God open those doors, I would love that. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible. And if that means going into the mainstream media, that would be great. And if not, then that's great too. I'm just totally open to whatever God's plan is-we just don't want to compromise what we're doing in order to get there. Should mainstream media decide that it's something they want to play, then great. But we just need to continue to live our lives and set an example and continue to write the music that God puts in our hearts.

    What parts of the Bible inspire you the most?

    I have always been a really big fan of the story of King David. I relate to him in a lot of different ways. He was one of the greatest songwriters throughout the Bible-a very talented musician, and a very athletic and talented warrior.

    My favorite Bible verse is Psalm 37:4, "Delight thyself also in the Lord and He shall give thee the desires of your heart." That's just been a life-long verse to me that I've held onto in a lot of different situations.

    So you're scheduled to play at the upcoming Palau festival in Washington, DC. How did you become involved in that?

    The Luis Palau organization is based out of Beaverton, Oregon, which is where I live right now. The whole band is based out of the Portland area. Two years ago I went to Portland Fest when I was in college and watched the shows and said maybe someday we'd be able [to play there]. Sure enough we've now done several Palau events. So we've gotten to do a lot of really exciting things with them. It's really cool working with those guys. They're all great people and have a really laid back approach, which is good for us. We've definitely enjoyed teaming up with them.

    If you weren't in Kutless what would you be doing?

    I was going to school as a business major in college when we were signed, and I left school to begin touring. I'd probably be in the business field. I've also had a few different pastoral opportunities. I'm really not sure. Should this ever end and the Lord takes me in a different direction, I'll just have to hang on for the ride, as I have been.

    What would you say to people who are critical of any kind of hard rock music?

    I've really found absolutely no Biblical basis to say that rock and roll is evil. In fact there are verses that are contradicting that, [such as] "Make joyful noise for the Lord" and "Praise him with the loud clanging of cymbals," in Pslams. If anything, I've found more Biblical evidence to support rock and roll than I've found against it. It's simply another form of expressing yourself. Music, in and of itself, cannot inherently be evil or bad or good. I believe that it's the content and the heart behind the music that makes the music what it is.

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