Punk-ska for Christ

It’s 10:30 on Saturday night. All the kettles have been collected, and Joe Yerke is locking up the Salvation Army in Royal Oak for the night, marking the end of a 70-hour work week. As Sunday approaches, the 25-year-old program coordinator and youth pastor is looking forward to a day off. He’ll be back in the morning for worship, but that goes without saying. And he’ll likely see several of his bandmates in the pews too.

This is not how the average frontman of a popular punk rock band that has sold more than 300,000 records spends Saturday night. Of course, Yerke — a bear of a dude at 6-foot-3 if he’s an inch — has just finished up talking to a reporter about the band he fronts, the seven-piece Christian ska-punk outfit Insyderz. He’s as excited and anxious as any screamer about the reception to his band’s new record, which hit the stores in November. And if he weren’t so damn amiable, there’d be a picture of him next to the word “imposing” in Webster’s.

Last month, the Insyderz played to a sold-out crowd of kids at the Royal Oak Theatre with their friends, Christian alt-rock band Reliant K. Not that Yerke could revel in the fan idolatry.

“There were a bunch of kids that were coming up to me and saying what a great show it was and wanting to talk to me and all this stuff,” he says. “But the kids from my church were there just shaking their heads, like ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just Joe.’ And that keeps me grounded.”

But that’s just one reason Yerke doesn’t have a case of rockstar-itis.

“I mean, I’m just a blue-collar kid. And I see people in my work every day that have it really bad. They don’t have food, or a place to stay, and I’m truly humbled.”

“The Salvation Army is founded on the idea that you can’t save a man’s soul if he has an empty stomach,” says Insyderz drummer and co-founder Nate Sjorgren. “And on a similar note, if you’re a Christian Rock band, you can’t save anyone’s soul if your music sucks.”

Saving souls is one thing, but it’s no secret that Christian rock has been big business for years. As long ago (or as seemingly long ago, culturally) as the mid-’80s hair metal explosion and the dawn of MTV, pseudo-glam Christian rockers Stryper sold out major arenas and opened for secular rock artists. But lately, with the multiplatinum ascent of bands like Creed, Payable on Death (POD) and others, the stakes have been much higher and the opportunities afforded bands that toe the spiritual line have been greater.

Major record labels are now going out specifically in search of a Christian Rock act. This collision of capitalism and faith equals massive sales.

Even in an era when record labels are crying about declining sales, bands like POD and Evanesence can carry the bottom line single-handedly. Depending upon your relationship to A) Capitalism and/or B) Jesus Christ, this could be either unnerving or encouraging.

The Insyderz — Yerke and Sjorgren; Sang Kim, trombone; Bram Roberts, trumpet; Beau McCarthy, bass; Michael Lloyd, guitar; Alan Brown, cornet — are, no doubt, a Christian Rock band. More exactly, they are a punk rock band that espouses the spiritual underpinnings of Christianity.

The Insyderz were formed in 1995 while the band members were all still in high school. Sjorgren and Yerke met at Royal Oak’s Kimball High School. Sjorgren was in a non-Christian straight-edge (drink and drug eschewing, socially conscious punk/hardcore) band called Ground State that had just pressed its first DIY 45.

“I was selling singles out of my backpack one day. And Joe walks up and asks to buy a copy. I said ‘Well, OK, but you’re not gonna like it,’” recalls Sjorgren with a chuckle.

Turns out Yerke dug it, and it started a friendship based primarily around shared musical tastes. But according to Sjorgren, they had a deeper bond too.

“We realized we were both on this spiritual journey,” says Sjorgren.

Both of them had grown up in churchgoing families. Both discovered punk at the same time and were trying to figure out what their spirituality had in common with straight-edge bands like Earth Crisis.

“We were really into them … their lives reflected what they believed,” says Sjorgren.

Growing up and cutting their teeth in the punk scene, there didn’t seem to be any contradiction between their more ascetic religious beliefs and the punk rock evangelism that saves one soul at a time — be that historically in the name of God or rock ’n’ roll.

Suffice it to say that these were not your “Kum By Ya” kids. And they’d only later find out that they weren’t alone. But for now, they had each other, and that was enough. Well, that coupled with the fact that they were both involved with the activist-oriented Royal Oak Salvation Army church.

But the straight-edge crowd was, perhaps ironically, too dogmatic for Sjorgren. It wasn’t that scene’s near-monastic attitude toward abstinence. In fact, none of the Insyderz are smokers or drinkers. But rather, for the then-18-year-old punk Sjorgren, it was the preachy nature of straight-edge figureheads like Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and the local dudes who appointed themselves his apostles.

“It got to a point where I guess I kind of felt that the straight-edge movement had become a self-righteous social group,” says Sjorgren. “I started to think of myself better than people who were smoking or drinking. I had come to a point where I guess that there needed to be more of an emphasis on the spirit of people than on their outward actions.”

So he split the straight-edge scene, but soon discovered that he still had a yen to rock. As did Yerke. They felt they had something to say. Says Sjorgren:

“And at that time we were involved with the Salvation Army and it just so happened that we had all the pieces of a ska band. And we were really into ska music, and were going to see bands like the Parka Kings, the Exceptions and Aks Mamma.”

Since Sjorgren was the only one with much musical experience, they didn’t start to write music right away. Instead, they took songs they all knew and revised them for a ska-punk sound, sort of skiffle reggae-meets hardcore rock. Turned out the songs they all knew were church worship songs.


Over the past 30 years or so, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement has taken root in North American and European Christian congregations separate from the rural Christian music and Southern gospel traditions. Spearheaded by pioneers like the Resurrection Band (or simply the Rez Band), the CCM idea was to take the worshipful music of the church and present it in such a way that kids might actually relate to it.

In practice, CCM is intended as the suburban, largely Anglo, modern answer to the power of the traditional gospel choir — music that doesn’t make you feel self-conscious about rockin’ out and worshiping at the same time. And over the past 20 years, it has made remarkable strides in marketing itself as a unique genre of music offering something for everyone’s taste, so long as they believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and accept the Resurrection.

For secular audiences, CCM has traditionally offered little that the mainstream pop charts didn’t. To be sure, in the ’80s, CCM artists like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant started selling out arenas based solely on attendance promoted through churches. The parking lots outside these shows seemed to have as many youth group buses from surrounding suburban churches as minivans. But these artists were still pretty square, often landing in the safe center between Donny Osmond’s turn in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jon Bon Jovi.

CCM grew up and diversified in the ’90s. For hip-hop fans, there was DC Talk. For early grunge fans, there was Audio Adrenaline. Need a ska-punk fix? The OC Supertones were the alpha (with Five Iron Frenzy and the Insyderz available if the Supertones couldn’t make it). Need some twee Lilith Fair pop? Try Sixpence None the Richer (remember the huge ’90s crossover hit “Kiss Me”?). Even recently, the CCM world has offered bands like Chevelle, Reliant K, Evanesence and POD as alternates to bands like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit and styles like Emo-core (emotional hardcore).

And for the most part, these bands “self-identified” as Christian Rock acts. They weren’t trying to be sneaky about it. And, like U2 and Amy Grant before them, many are successfully crossing over without losing their church fan-base.

Lots of musicians make a very good living solely as CCM artists. There are Billboard charts for the music. They have their own honors, called the Dove Awards (which the Insyderz have won before). And CCM has even recently been afforded space in the mainstream award programs like the American Music Awards as “Inspirational” music. CCM artists tour the country and the world playing local churches, arenas and theaters rented by churches. And they sell them out, although you’d never know they were even in town by following mainstream media outlets.

The church bulletin has been replaced by the Web site message board. And advances in home studio and digital recording technology have closed the gap between CCM acts’ previous telltale lack of production values and their mainstream contemporaries.

It is into this scene that the Insyderz plunged.

In addition to their steady diet of secular artists like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Earth Crisis and Reel Big Fish, the young Insyderz were also hearing the top hits from the CCM charts of the day. Worship songs from artists like Amy Grant and others not only provided the Insyderz with a gauge for what their Christian audiences might expect, but, more importantly, it gave them material when they were taking baby steps as a band. They were able to cover (and skankify) current CCM hits and trade on the songs’ familiarity while not having to lean on non-worship music.

“Now we look back on it,” says Sjorgren, “and say, ‘Well, that was pretty cheesy.’ But at that time it made sense.”

For the first couple years, they played underground, but non-Christian all-ages clubs like the Black Cat in Royal Oak and the Mosquito Club in Westland, as well as places like the Majestic Theatre where they opened for established bands like Mustard Plug and Johnny Socko.

They slogged it out like any new mainstream band on the circuit building a fan-base. Touring the secular market is no different for a Christian act except for audiences’ reluctance to “get hit over the head” with the band’s message,” as Sjorgren puts it.

But when it comes to playing churches, there is a built-in audience. Kids turn out for youth group functions regardless of who’s playing, and with an attentive audience, the only thing for a self-respecting Christian Rock band to do is get ’em excited and sell ’em records.

Within a year, the Insyderz had built up enough of a following — and enough confidence — to head down to the 1996 Cornerstone Festival. The annual gathering of the tribes in southern Illinois draws thousands of youth groups and other church-affiliated kids for a week of Christian Rock, punk rock, pop, ska and metal bands (as well as teach-ins, workshops and other devotional curricula).

In true DIY fashion, the Insyderz set up and played at their campsite. They were still selling singles out of their backpacks (a 45 on Russell Ledford’s Berkley-based Beat Hotel records).

“We had, like, 600 people at our campsite when we played,” recalls Sjorgren. “They didn’t shut us down, but after that, no one was allowed to play their campsites anymore.”

They sold out at Cornerstone and soon found themselves with an offer to make a record. So like any other blooming teenage rock stars, they went to California to record their debut, “Motor City Ska,” a record whose title, if not the entirety of its contents, was geared to a secular ear and eye.

As they toured the country with this record, they realized that the growing crowds turning up were requesting worship tunes that weren’t on the record.

The result of this demand — in keeping with the long tradition of ska albums with horrible puns for titles — was the album The Insyderz Present Skalleluia! The group recorded with Steven Taylor, a punk-friendly Christian Rock figure who had produced landmark records for the Newsboys and played on records for DC Talk — and who would go on to produce Sixpence None The Richer among others. Skalleluia!’s hyperkinetic takes on songs like “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” and other modern church standards not only netted the Insyderz massive record sales, but also a devoted live following that kept them on the road over the next two years.

“This was our job,” recalls Yerke. “We were young and dedicated like any band, and none of us were married or had any other obligations.”

“We didn’t think twice about piling into a beat-up van with no spare tire for one show in California,” adds Sjorgren.

In the Christian Rock press, the Insyderz were afforded kudos as an important part of a modern worship movement while riding the crest of ska-punk’s wave of popularity. They found themselves touring nationally, eventually playing venues as large as Pittsburgh’s Hershey Arena with fellow Christian ska-punk outfits the OC Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy — who also had their coming-out performances at the same Cornerstone festival as the Insyderz. But the Insyderz also spent a chunk of time touring with secular punks like the Skeletones, piling in the van, sleeping on floors and playing to a handful of kids in bars across the country.

According to both Yerke and Sjorgren, the net effect was similar, even if the atmosphere was different.

“We had a lot of really intense times on the Skeletones tour,” recalls Yerke. “Some of the guys were having trouble being away from home, and we ended up forming really strong friendships with them. I mean, we didn’t seclude ourselves away; we weren’t just sitting in the van praying right up until we hit the stage or anything.”

Indeed, according to Yerke and Sjorgren, one of the most important ideas behind the Insyderz brand of evangelism was the notion of spreading the gospel through not only their actions, but also via one-on-one personal relationships. Hence, they claim they weren’t all that concerned whether they played to five or 5,000.

One major difference, according to Yerke, was that the Christian Rock circuit was undoubtedly more “cush” than similar tours by upcoming mainstream bands.

“On one hand, you could be playing to a handful of kids in a dicey part of town late at night,” he says with a wry smile. “Or, you could play in front of a thousand kids from churches around the suburbs, get home-cooked meals and have a nice place to stay.”

But playing more than 250 shows a year took its toll after a couple years. In 2000, after playing from Podunk to every major U.S. city and some European festival dates, the Insyderz seemed to call it a day.

Most of the band members got married. They got day jobs. They bought homes. They found other ways to worship besides bathing in sweat and basking in the footlights.

Meanwhile, the Christian Rock they helped bring to a larger audience crossed over into the mainstream. Rock acts and bands that once opened for the Insyderz — like POD, Chevelle, Switchfoot and others became pop stars, embraced by a generation of MTV fans who either don’t care or don’t mind their messages of barely-cloaked spirituality.

The rise in prominence of Christian Rock may have something to do with our uncertain times, according to New York City-based marketing specialist Mario Almonte, who has spent the last 15 years studying pop culture trends.

“The unrest in the world — and in our own society — is making people more receptive to the soothing and reassuring message of Christian music.”

So is the current administration involved with bringing Christian music to a wider audience? According to Almonte, not so much.

“Nah ... hip hop, rap and metal are still way more popular. The president isn’t hip enough to influence the main music-buying audience.”

But it’s hard to argue that the political climate in which Christianity of the vocal and strident variety that our president practices has gotten a lot more exposure. And with exposure comes familiarity. Couple that with the undeniable fact that CCM marketers have gotten more savvy, and you’ve got a booming industry on your hands.

“There’s no doubt that Christian music marketers have gotten a little more cynical and calculating,” continues Almonte. “After all, there’s nothing in the Christian philosophy that says you can’t make a profit getting the ‘Word of God’ out to the masses. The record labels don’t necessarily have to ascribe to the ‘meek and mild’ philosophy. These companies are opportunistic businesses — they put out a product that meets the market’s need. People want hip hop, they give ’em hip hop! If tomorrow, people’s taste turns to country music, you can bet they’ll be all over the South looking for them singing cowboys.”

And yet, notes Almonte, “All the cynicism in the world isn’t going to sell something people don’t want.”


Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste … — “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones

To hell with the devil! — “To Hell With the Devil,” Stryper

Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity any better? You’re only making rock ’n’ roll worse!Hank Hill, “King of the Hill”

Pop culture — rock ’n’ roll in particular — has traditionally been a place where the three B’s ruled: booze, babes ’n’ Beelzebub. People do love their nightlife and rock ’n’ roll’s history is riddled with charges of receiving orders from the devil — either literally or metaphorically. It’s also riddled with the tales of artists like U2, who started as a self-identified Christian Rock band, as well as Bob Dylan’s much-maligned born-again phase, plus lots of less overt folks— like Bruce Cockburn, Creed and others. And that’s not even mentioning the long line of rockers who worked the pompadour and the swivel hips on Saturday night and left part of their take in the donation plate on Sunday morning (like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash).

But attempts by the church to use rock as a Trojan horse for Christian messages have always been viewed with suspicion by “the kids.”

With all the Christian Rock in today’s mainstream, what is interesting is the extent to which its spiritual content is now not noticed.

“Nine times out of ten, you could tell a Christian Rock record from a mainstream record based on the quality of the production values alone,” says Yerke. “People at Christian shows buy the records as a way to remember the event and are, um, more forgiving of how it sounds.”

But that’s becoming less and less the case as evidenced by radio’s acceptance of the cream of the Christian rock “crossover” bands — bands like Creed, Evanesence and, most notably, POD.

“There are bands that build a following in the Christian scene,” says Sjorgren, “then decide to cross over — go and get on a secular label — when they hit the ceiling in the Christian market.”

But he says they often leverage the Christian market as a platform to get into the secular market. Creed has done this, Sixpence None The Richer has done this, Evanesence has done this. It’s almost standard operating procedure.

“Then they’ll say that they’re a new band on MCA or whatever,” says Sjorgren. “And all of a sudden everything’s vague and really gray.”

But bands like POD, according to Sjorgren, have a lot of credibility still in the Christian Rock community despite crossing over, making their lyrics more vaguely spiritual than overtly worshipful and selling millions of records.

Then again, unlike Evanescence, POD has done nothing so foolish as publicly turn their backs on the Christian Rock masses by swearing in mainstream print publications and distancing themselves from a cultural movement that those in the scene take very, very seriously.

To hear Sjorgren tell it, there’s a difference between “real” Christian or spiritual acts and those who are just in it because it happens to be a potential gold mine for anyone willing take the “risky” move of outing themselves as a member of a populous, mainstream and politically, culturally and historically powerful religious group.

He tells a story seemingly straight out of the movie Footloose. POD, the story goes, was playing a show in their hometown of San Diego at which the Insyderz also played. The amphitheater owner hadn’t pulled a dancing permit and the cops showed up and said the show would have to stop. But POD played anyway, telling the audience, “This music isn’t necessarily about the movement of the body but the movement of the soul, and if you can’t get down with this, you’re not listening.”

According to Sjorgren, the scout from Atlantic Records there to see POD came up to the band afterward and said, “I was sent out here to find out if you’re real. We’re taking a major risk signing a Christian Rock act. And if we’re sticking our neck out, we wanted to make sure you were for real.”

The difference, for Sjorgren, and by extension, the Insyderz, seems to come down to following your spirituality vs. merely going to church.

“What usually gets glorified and publicized with Christianity is the religious side of it,” says Sjorgren.

The Insyderz don’t see themselves as part of the church-y side of the God-rock business. They stick to what they know, and that’s reaching out to other people, one-on-one, through their music. And that music, as it so happens, is grounded in their personal, deeply-held faith that they are doing Christ’s work at the street level.

“We’ve never gone out in the name of religion, to make religion sound cool,” says Sjorgren. “We want to build relationships with people who desperately seek other relationships.”

“There are spiritual disciplines that people practice like meditation, fasting, solitude, that kind of run across all the mainline religions as a whole,” says Sjorgren. “And I think where the issue comes up where you go from a gray to a cut-and-dry is when you ask what the purpose for that fasting or meditation is. Our focal point is, ‘Why would I do that? Why does it make sense to do that?’ Whereas a ‘religious’ person says, ‘The Bible says to do that, so I should.’”

It seems that for the Insyderz at least, the chief frame of reference is Jesus Christ, to them a scruffy “punk” who, says Sjorgren, “had he lived here and now probably would have been hanging out outside Caribou Coffee in Royal Oak.”

Sjorgren puts his beliefs in a punk rock context that ranges from a straight-edge advocate like Fugazi frontman Ian McKaye to an anarchist like Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra.

“Everyone has something to say. And what we’re saying is that we’re loved. That God has a plan for me as I am. We’re telling people that God’s saying, ‘Bring your punk self to me and do something with it.’ For us that is totally reconcilable with punk rock. The big draw of music is that it’s an outpouring of someone’s soul.

“We can do music, or we can do music that could possibly change someone’s life. You come to our shows and we don’t tell people what to do. We do uplift God with our music,” he says. “But we don’t hide our spiritual beliefs. If we hid it, people would smell that a mile away.

“This is our battle,” says Sjorgren.


So where does this leave the Insyderz in a pop music world that may have passed them by? After all, in the mid-1990s, they were at ground zero for Christian Rock’s crossover. They were a ska-punk band in a time when that musical style was youth culture’s common currency. While in the secular world, bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Rancid, No Doubt and others were filling theaters, they and their Christian punk counterparts like California’s OC Supertones and Colorado’s Five Iron Frenzy were selling out arenas.

In 2002, the seven Insyderz were asked to play a festival in Washington state called Creation. They decided it sounded like a good idea. They got bit by the band bug again. The fact that some of the members have commitments (raising families, day jobs, and, indeed, ministries) to attend to now keeps them honest about their expectations.

Last month, the Insyderz released their fourth full-length record, Soundtrack to a Revolution. The record — a fierce combination of punk, ska and hardcore punctuated by anthemic brass flourishes — was produced by Royce Nunley, the former bassist of Detroit’s Suicide Machines, one of the vanguard ska-punk bands to make the crossover to major label success in the late ’90s. The Insyderz, by their estimation, have sold more than 300,000 records over their eight-year existence and toured across the United States. and internationally. The Insyderz aren’t stuck in the Christian Rock ghetto.

But the reality for the band is that they’re playing a style — ska — that isn’t getting the kids to hit the download button these days.

“When ska-punk dropped out of radio in the secular world, the same thing happened in the Christian market,” says Yerke. “We didn’t change our style, though. It doesn’t necessarily make sense in terms of what’s happening in mainstream music, but we wanted to write, we wanted to be together.”

He continues, “We went from being seven guys with raging hormones and desires to being seven guys who are married and have jobs and kids.”

“When we first came out,” says Sjorgren. “We really swung [our Christianity] like a barbarian’s club. When we would play at the Majestic opening for bands like Mustard Plug, people would yell, ‘Less God! More ska!’ and to the other bands’ credit, they saw us as a band first and Christians second.”

And that’s a valuable lesson to have learned if you’re a band of dudes who straddle the secular and the devotional the way the Insyderz hope to. It’s certainly an insight that eight years and a world of change in the public perception of Christian music has taught the Insyderz not to take for granted.

“I mean, if you’re a Christian band, you already have one strike against you. If your music is no good, you might as well just call it a day.”

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]