Interview with Christal Methodists' Joel Schalit
The Christal Methodists have been satirizing Christian and conservative media since 1992, most recently on two full-length CDs, 1997's New World Odour and 1998's Satanic Ritual Abuse. They do it simply by turning preachers' and radio talk show hosts' words and voices against them, using loops and samples, sometimes goading them on with prank call-ins, sometimes simply sampling them over what they call "a massive array of shit-hop breakbeats and dimestore Muzak." The results are mean, funny and even, on Satanic Ritual Abuse, weirdly funky. Joel Schalit is a founding "Methodista," as well as a PhD candidate in social and political thought and a frequent contributor to the Berkeley-based lefty zine Bad Subjects. Describe what exactly y'all do. The Christal Methodists are best described as a highly irreverent group of garage collage artists who represent the punk end of the new "sample and release" esthetic. What we do is cut up and manipulate political spoken-word recordings that we find on right-wing talk shows and 50s inspirational records, particularly religious and anticommunist ones. Then we process, edit and EQ the hell out of them before we pour it all on top of our own carefully crafted hiphop and rock beats, Kraftwerk-like synthesizer parts and ambient guitar noises. What comes out is a frequently funny, dark and pointed new kind of political pop music that falls somewhere between digital hardcore and the Mothers of Invention in terms of attitude, and Gulf War-era Emergency Broadcast Network in the arrangements department. Throw in a bit of Mel Brooks-like Jewish humor and distorted elevator music and there you have us. Fringeware's Paco Nathan recently described us as a bunch of damaged 80s kids who write the kind of music that'd make a dosed-out raver shiver. I laughed really hard when I heard that. Just try playing our new album in a club. It's totally true! We always get trotted out that way by maladjusted college radio disc jockeys, so it doesn't surprise me in the least. We love being cast in the stealth role. I was tickled to find out we charted higher than Killdozer at Toronto's CIUT last year. Canadians are so cool. There are other groups doing somewhat similar things... To really dig what we're doing, you've gotta see us in the context of all the new electronic punk and computer-generated collage bands starting to surface, like Szeki Kurva, O.R.I. and the Evolution Control Committee... Having a shared artistic context to see yourself in is very healthy, because it means you're part of a new community. What's even better is that no one really sounds totally alike. It's all about how we're producing our work that establishes the sense of commonality between us, even though there are some obvious artistic similarities, like using samples taken from easy listening and offbeat orchestral records. The point is that it's given a whole new meaning to being DIY again to an old punk like me. Every day I'm coming across more and more stuff like it, and it's totally inspirational. Particularly in Europe, where you'll find kids raised on indie rock and hiphop reconstructing punk using PowerBooks and Macs instead of four-tracks, coming up with the most bizarre, catchy and hard-hitting combinations. Just listen to the last Bomb20 record. There's so much more going on there than just distorted beats. The vocal collages David Skiba creates out of blaxploitation and sci-fi film soundtracks are just as precious. How'd you get into satirizing conservative Christians? Out of a sense of outrage. At first I started doing this kind of work mostly as a reaction to my own surroundings, as a paranoid Jewish adolescent growing up in Portland, OR, during the 1980s. I was one of the only non-Christians that I knew as a student at a touchy-feely Anglican boarding school where I suffered from a severe degree of quiet disrespect for not toeing the official religious line of the institution. Everyone was always trying to convert me, but in this insincere, pseudo-multicultural kind of dishonest hippie way. It made me very sensitive to identity politics, particularly religious ones, because they were so sophisticated and utterly warped. I responded by being totally irreverent when it came to all matters of faith. By faith I mean any kind of ideology, religious or secular, that demands some kind of dogmatic adherence. Because religious ideology taught me to abhor all forms of fundamentalism. Orthodox Marxists, Maximumrocknroll readers, people who believe everything they read in The Nation and The Utne Reader frighten me just as much as religious fundamentalists do. The reason why I ended up concentrating on right-wing Christians in my artwork was purely a matter of historical circumstance, political priority and personal judgment, based on how I saw evangelical politics as epitomizing certain kinds of core American moral problems that I could personally relate to. Tackle those questions on their own turf, on Christian terms, and you bust open the Pandora's box of American political psychology. Why confront these issues musically? For two reasons: First, because I grew up listening to early 80s punk rock bands like Crass, Gang of Four and the Dead Kennedys. I was really moved by the urgency and drama of how they communicated their political ideas. Initially they were very effective, not to mention anti-sectarian. Anarchists, Marxists, feminists could all get down with the program without identifying themselves as such. They were just "punk," which to my young eyes was an enormous synthesis of radical political traditions that came together in this teeny, incestuous counterculture... The second reason why I decided to make records instead of throw bombs is because I found the kinds of messages you get out of traditional protest music, like political hiphop and hardcore, to have lost their ability to raise people's consciousness about suffering. At a certain point it all started to sound too preachy, too didactic, too academic, too patronizing. Rock 'n' roll had ceased to be an effective educational tool. I started to think very hard about ways to resensitize people in a manner that I first felt moved by. I wanted to make political art you could really connect with without feeling like you were being spoken down to, by making music that reconnected your own personal life with the political world beyond you. Sampling people's conversations on religious talk radio programs seemed like an excellent way to start, because I heard radio ministers doing exactly what I thought leftists in this country weren't doing: intervening directly in people's lives and providing explicitly political solutions to the most minute personal problems we all confront in everyday life. The answers these ministers were offering enraged me though, because I heard them teaching people to accept their own suffering as though it were a good thing, as though the experience of oppression was natural, something that should be accepted rather than fought against. I figured that if we could somehow document and dissect such brainwashing and manipulation through collage and cut-up arrangements, using found voices as though they were lead vocalists, we could somehow reinvigorate a crucial aspect of punk's consciousness-raising program that had been lost in all the noise and impotent, self-congratulatory liberal posturing I began to find in punk and hardcore... If we've learned anything artistically from the failings of punk, I think that it's making art that everyone can identify with, not just alienated, upwardly mobile hipsters seeking a new artistic formula to express tired old political slogans in. Those people are utterly irrelevant. Do you ever send copies of your CDs to any of the ministers you sample? No. They already know what they're really doing. They don't need Christal Methodists records to tell them. I put Satanic Ritual Abuse on for some of my friends and they found it hard to get into?no offense. I mean, we're used to either the music being kickass or it being really funny. This you have to have patience to get into. It's scary and disturbing, not fun to listen to, the music included. How do you intend to reach an audience that wouldn't usually listen to this? By making them come to us. But that's not going to be hard, because Christal Methodists are part of that audience already. We're just exemplifying how that establishment culture is changing and dealing with its own internal crises of insignificance. The difference is that we're talking about it, which is something that everyone in our neck of the countercultural woods is not doing at the present historical juncture. They're too preoccupied figuring out what's still punk. By the time they learn it's not important, the world will have long since passed them by. I have no patience for that. Besides, why make it easy for them? If we did things that way, Christal Methodists wouldn't have any reason to exist. We'd just be another landmark in the increasingly unimportant landscape of independent music culture, where everyone has to kick ass, every artist is either sensitive or amusing and no one is deprived of the right of eventually getting signed to a major label... What makes Satanic Ritual Abuse difficult to digest for the average independent music consumer is its documentary character. We capture a deeply tragic moment in American political culture, which very few people are comfortable talking about, because we all can identify with its content on one level or another... The value of records like Satanic Ritual Abuse is that they sneak politics through the back door, in the form of samples, stories and montages where people do everything from talk about how fucked their lives are to actively humiliate the powers that be. I think that's incredibly important because what records like that do is they restore our ability to talk about politics. But if you're not prepared for it, stay away. I can't think of anything more distressing than a record that does that because of all the unprocessed, guilt-ridden, personal baggage it may bring up. If you don't feel moved to do something, what if you identify with one of the characters? You're still screwed. But I take delight in that because it means that what we're doing is working. You must get confused a lot with the Crystal Method. Has that helped or been a pain in the ass? Who had the name first? Their name is an outright drug reference. Ours is a cheeky pun, which suggests that Christianity is a drug. To answer your question though, we first started to formally use "Christal Methodists" in early 1992 when we finished our first demo and started shopping it around... The only time the similarity in band names has caused me any grief was when Pansy Division's drummer Luis took me backstage at a Bis-Pee Chees show last year. When he introduced me as "Joel from Christal Methodists," everyone in the room laughed really loudly and started teasing me for not tripping like they do. It was really funny. I tried to explain that I was in a different band than the one they thought I was in, but everyone was really drunk and into being contemptuous of all things mainstream. Some guy in a local pop-punk band whose name escapes me replied, "Oh come now, you're a disco superstar, you look just like them!" The one thing I think would be fun to do some time though is exploit the similarity and maybe remix each other's work and release it as a split 7-inch. Now that would be really confusing. Where can folks buy your CD? All discs are 10 bucks postpaid and can be obtained either through our new website at www.kolazhnikov.com, or our new label, Kolazhnikov, which is now headquartered at Kolazhnikov Tower Room 1101, 1122 E. Pike Street, Seattle WA 98122-3934. Anything else you want to add? We always appreciate folks sending us unsettling spoken-word recordings. If you wanna be a part of our next record, send it our way. We just might include you.
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