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Some of the best bands in the Seventies were the ugliest-looking dudes," says Dave Gimenez, lead singer and songwriter for the North Carolinian band Mae. "It used to be if your music was killer, that's all that mattered ... I was looking through Boston's CD -- if these guys looked like that today, their music probably wouldn't be considered classic rock."
When it comes to good music, appearances certainly aren't everything. On a label (Tooth and Nail) known for signing Christian acts, Mae has just released a charming and accessible emo-pop debut, Destination: Beautiful, to positive reviews. CMJ New Music Monthly hailed the album as "infinitely listenable, pushing all the right aural pop buttons."
Gimenez is calling in from the road. Children are laughing in the background.
"Do you have kids with you?"
"Sorry, yeah, I have three kids," Gimenez says softly. "I take them with me on the road as we tour."
If Gimenez is a holy man, it makes sense that he would have a wife and children, and that they would travel around with him like Zipporah and Moses -- the children wrapped in swaddling clothes and their feet bound with palm fronds as they shoved off to God-only-knew-where on some half-dead jackass.
"Wow, you have three kids?"
"No, I'm just kidding. We're at a restaurant."
Assuming too much about this band because of its members' religious beliefs is an honest but comical mistake. Like Pedro the Lion, P.O.D., Creed, and labelmate Further Seems Forever, Mae is a band with Christian members, not proselytizers. (According to Tooth and Nail, two of the band's five members are less inclined to identify themselves as "Christians.") Most of the songs on Destination: Beautiful deal with the nasty snarls and tangles as well as the sweet spit and bubbles of love. Its most direct religious lyric is on the lead track, "Embers and Envelopes": "Let's look ahead and then we'll see the one whose glory never ends."
"We wrote the entire record before we had even signed with Tooth and Nail," explains the man who counts the Cure and Depeche Mode on his list of all-time favorite bands. "We were concerned that being on a Christian label would pigeonhole us.
"When I write lyrics, I'm not trying to write anything other than what I think or feel or believe," Gimenez adds in earnest. "Sometimes, the way I incorporate that into writing is in more of a relationship sense than a religion or a practice, and it comes out that way in the lyrics."
When asked to describe Mae's music, Gimenez says, "It's vocal-oriented and vocal-driven melodic, energizing rock." That sounds just about right. Somewhere between Jimmy Eat World and Sunny Day Real Estate, there could be a lot of room for these guys to get commercially comfortable, especially now that they are set to release a potent new single, "Summertime," to college radio stations in the coming weeks.
This all begs another interesting question -- who is really fit to say if a band is or isn't Christian? Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" (a song he wrote from God's perspective) is possibly one of the most well-known religious pop songs ever released, but he isn't regarded as a "Christian" musician. Additionally it seems that R&B, hip-hop, and rap stars can allude to or admit to being Christian without being shunned or stereotyped by mainstream listeners. When Destiny's Child sang on "Survivor," "I'm not gonna compromise my Christianity," the F.Y.E. chain didn't issue a corporate memo asking employees to move the trio's CD to a different bin, and the company didn't reclassify Justin Timberlake's Justifiedas a Contemporary Christian album, either, just because Timberlake repeatedly thanked "[his] Savior -- the Lord Jesus Christ" in its liner notes.
On Mae's message board (www.whatismae.com), fans have debated the question "Is Mae a Christian band?" in a thread that has lasted for several hundred posts. "What started as a question about the band turned into a big debate about what people believe themselves, and I think it's great that our band could invoke such intelligent thinking," Gimenez says.
One poster said he would no longer be listening to Mae because he just realized that the band sings about girls as well as God. Though in the minority, he did have supporters, including one woman who congratulated him for refusing "to allow media to compromise him."
In order to avoid ending the dialogue, Mae's members refrained from posting anything that would settle the debate surrounding their Christian identity. "I think, if you could put together what everyone said," Gimenez explains, "it was more profound and moving than anything we could have said on our own."