Interview with Christal Methodists' Joel Schalit

Make text smaller Make text larger

The Christal Methodistshave been satirizing Christian and conservative media since 1992, most recentlyon two full-length CDs, 1997's New World Odour and 1998's SatanicRitual Abuse. They do it simply by turning preachers' and radio talk showhosts' words and voices against them, using loops and samples, sometimesgoading them on with prank call-ins, sometimes simply sampling them over whatthey 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 thoughtand a frequent contributor to the Berkeley-based lefty zine Bad Subjects. Describe what exactly y'all do. The Christal Methodistsare best described as a highly irreverent group of garage collage artists whorepresent the punk end of the new "sample and release" esthetic. Whatwe do is cut up and manipulate political spoken-word recordings that we findon right-wing talk shows and 50s inspirational records, particularly religiousand anticommunist ones. Then we process, edit and EQ the hell out of them beforewe pour it all on top of our own carefully crafted hiphop and rock beats, Kraftwerk-likesynthesizer parts and ambient guitar noises. What comes out is a frequentlyfunny, dark and pointed new kind of political pop music that falls somewherebetween 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'sPaco Nathan recently described us as a bunch of damaged 80s kids who write thekind of music that'd make a dosed-out raver shiver. I laughed really hardwhen I heard that. Just try playing our new album in a club. It's totallytrue! 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 stealthrole. I was tickled to find out we charted higher than Killdozer at Toronto'sCIUT last year. Canadians are so cool. There are other groupsdoing somewhat similar things... To really dig what we'redoing, you've gotta see us in the context of all the new electronic punkand computer-generated collage bands starting to surface, like Szeki Kurva,O.R.I. and the Evolution Control Committee... Having a shared artistic contextto see yourself in is very healthy, because it means you're part of a newcommunity. 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 senseof 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 toan old punk like me. Every day I'm coming across more and more stuff likeit, and it's totally inspirational. Particularly in Europe, where you'llfind kids raised on indie rock and hiphop reconstructing punk using PowerBooksand Macs instead of four-tracks, coming up with the most bizarre, catchy andhard-hitting combinations. Just listen to the last Bomb20 record. There'sso much more going on there than just distorted beats. The vocal collages DavidSkiba creates out of blaxploitation and sci-fi film soundtracks are just asprecious. How'd you get intosatirizing 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-feelyAnglican boarding school where I suffered from a severe degree of quiet disrespectfor not toeing the official religious line of the institution. Everyone wasalways trying to convert me, but in this insincere, pseudo-multicultural kindof dishonest hippie way. It made me very sensitive to identity politics, particularlyreligious ones, because they were so sophisticated and utterly warped. I respondedby being totally irreverent when it came to all matters of faith. By faith Imean any kind of ideology, religious or secular, that demands some kind of dogmaticadherence. Because religious ideology taught me to abhor all forms of fundamentalism.Orthodox Marxists, Maximumrocknroll readers, people who believe everythingthey read in The Nation and The Utne Reader frighten me just asmuch as religious fundamentalists do. The reason why I ended upconcentrating on right-wing Christians in my artwork was purely a matter ofhistorical circumstance, political priority and personal judgment, based onhow I saw evangelical politics as epitomizing certain kinds of core Americanmoral problems that I could personally relate to. Tackle those questions ontheir own turf, on Christian terms, and you bust open the Pandora's boxof American political psychology. Why confront these issuesmusically? For two reasons: First,because I grew up listening to early 80s punk rock bands like Crass, Gang ofFour and the Dead Kennedys. I was really moved by the urgency and drama of howthey communicated their political ideas. Initially they were very effective,not to mention anti-sectarian. Anarchists, Marxists, feminists could all getdown with the program without identifying themselves as such. They were just"punk," which to my young eyes was an enormous synthesis of radicalpolitical traditions that came together in this teeny, incestuous counterculture... The second reason why Idecided to make records instead of throw bombs is because I found the kindsof messages you get out of traditional protest music, like political hiphopand hardcore, to have lost their ability to raise people's consciousnessabout suffering. At a certain point it all started to sound too preachy, toodidactic, too academic, too patronizing. Rock 'n' roll had ceasedto be an effective educational tool. I started to think very hard about waysto resensitize people in a manner that I first felt moved by. I wanted to makepolitical art you could really connect with without feeling like you were beingspoken down to, by making music that reconnected your own personal life withthe political world beyond you. Sampling people's conversationson religious talk radio programs seemed like an excellent way to start, becauseI heard radio ministers doing exactly what I thought leftists in this countryweren't doing: intervening directly in people's lives and providingexplicitly political solutions to the most minute personal problems we all confrontin everyday life. The answers these ministers were offering enraged methough, because I heard them teaching people to accept their own suffering asthough it were a good thing, as though the experience of oppression was natural,something that should be accepted rather than fought against. I figured thatif we could somehow document and dissect such brainwashing and manipulationthrough collage and cut-up arrangements, using found voices as though they werelead 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 thinkthat it's making art that everyone can identify with, not just alienated,upwardly mobile hipsters seeking a new artistic formula to express tired oldpolitical slogans in. Those people are utterly irrelevant. Do you ever send copiesof your CDs to any of the ministers you sample? No. They already know whatthey're really doing. They don't need Christal Methodists recordsto tell them. I put Satanic Ritual Abuseon 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 reallyfunny. 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 audiencethat 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 ofthat audience already. We're just exemplifying how that establishment cultureis changing and dealing with its own internal crises of insignificance. Thedifference is that we're talking about it, which is something that everyonein our neck of the countercultural woods is not doing at the presenthistorical juncture. They're too preoccupied figuring out what's stillpunk. By the time they learn it's not important, the world will have longsince passed them by. I have no patience for that. Besides, why make it easyfor them? If we did things that way, Christal Methodists wouldn't haveany reason to exist. We'd just be another landmark in the increasinglyunimportant landscape of independent music culture, where everyone has to kickass, every artist is either sensitive or amusing and no one is deprived of theright of eventually getting signed to a major label... What makes Satanic RitualAbuse difficult to digest for the average independent music consumer isits documentary character. We capture a deeply tragic moment in American politicalculture, which very few people are comfortable talking about, because we allcan identify with its content on one level or another... The value of records likeSatanic Ritual Abuse is that they sneak politics through the back door,in the form of samples, stories and montages where people do everything fromtalk about how fucked their lives are to actively humiliate the powers thatbe. I think that's incredibly important because what records like thatdo is they restore our ability to talk about politics. But if you're notprepared for it, stay away. I can't think of anything more distressingthan a record that does that because of all the unprocessed, guilt-ridden, personalbaggage it may bring up. If you don't feel moved to do something, whatif you identify with one of the characters? You're still screwed. But Itake delight in that because it means that what we're doing is working. You must get confuseda lot with the Crystal Method. Has that helped or been a pain in the ass? Whohad the name first? Their name is an outrightdrug reference. Ours is a cheeky pun, which suggests that Christianity is adrug. To answer your question though, we first started to formally use "ChristalMethodists" in early 1992 when we finished our first demo and started shoppingit around... The only time the similarity in band names has caused me any griefwas when Pansy Division's drummer Luis took me backstage at a Bis-Pee Cheesshow last year. When he introduced me as "Joel from Christal Methodists,"everyone in the room laughed really loudly and started teasing me for not trippinglike they do. It was really funny. I tried to explain that I was in a differentband than the one they thought I was in, but everyone was really drunk and intobeing contemptuous of all things mainstream. Some guy in a local pop-punk bandwhose name escapes me replied, "Oh come now, you're a disco superstar,you look just like them!" The one thing I think wouldbe fun to do some time though is exploit the similarity and maybe remix eachother's work and release it as a split 7-inch. Now that would be reallyconfusing. Where can folks buy yourCD? All discs are 10 bucks postpaidand can be obtained either through our new website at, orour new label, Kolazhnikov, which is now headquartered at Kolazhnikov TowerRoom 1101, 1122 E. Pike Street, Seattle WA 98122-3934. Anything else you wantto add? We always appreciate folkssending us unsettling spoken-word recordings. If you wanna be a part of ournext record, send it our way. We just might include you.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters