The evangelical indie rock scene of the ’90s can be hard to explain. A rebellious and unbalanced underground movement that emerged from the basements of mega-churches and religious colleges? A generation of musicians who severed ties with conservative Christianity but maintained a fan base built up through youth groups and Young Life? You kind of had to be there.
Perhaps no group characterizes the many paradoxes of this scene and its aftermath than Luxury, formed in a small town in Georgia in the early 1990s and still together today. The band itself is also hard to describe: maybe Morrissey in front of Fugazi, with a sad Radiohead piano, major English hints, androgynous sexuality – oh and by the way, three of the five band members are Eastern Orthodox priests. . (This is called burying the lede.)
And so Parallel love, a documentary film by Matt Hinton, can’t help but be as strange and wonderful as the band it portrays and the music scene they fell into and (mostly) out of. Hinton’s first documentary, Awake, my soul: the story of the sacred harp, also touched on uniquely American religious music. His feature film on Luxury, initially released for a short theatrical release in 2019, is available on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms on May 18.
If you’ve heard of Luxury before, you might not need to convince yourself that this band is interesting and worth almost an hour and a half of screen time. For my money they are quite simply one of the best and most convincing rock bands of all time. Instrumentally, they sit between precision and chaos, presenting a surly, tangled mess of wild guitar riffs and drums anchored by chunky punk basslines, covered by an ethereal crooning voice. That’s wonderful.
What is more fascinating about Luxury, however, is that they almost by definition manage to be the most Christian band in the world (lead singer Lee Bozeman once claimed that Luxury was “the alone Christian group â) while not looking anything like what most people would think of as a Christian group. No songs about Jesus; no positive “family” words; no altar calls – in fact, it’s quite the opposite: Luxury songs are often about sex, sadness and regret.
Yet the music is composed by people who grew up in the evangelical milieu – Lee Bozeman and his brother, guitarist James Bozeman, were the pastor’s children – and clearly continue to treat their Christian faith with total sincerity. The non-priest members of the group also remain active in their respective denominations.
The two scenes that form the backdrop to the film’s title card set the tone: on the left side, the band’s solemn and dramatically bearded guitarist, singer and bassist are draped in gold-edged robes, wearing giant crosses in front of a huge icon. On the right, the same men prance in a sultry, sweaty rock show, aggressively attacking guitars and throwing mic stands.
The film, which uses interviews with the group, critics and other actors in the music world, as well as archival footage, is more or less historical, chronicling the group’s journey from its roots in Toccoa Falls, a college of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. in Georgia, on their signing with Tooth & Nail Records, the powerful independent label that fueled the explosion of Christian indie rock of the 90s, to a horrific touring accident that hospitalized the band, on their eventual return and journey to l orthodoxy and the priesthood.
The first part of the film is preoccupied with the question “Why has luxury not succeeded?” The answer is most likely that they didn’t quite realize what they were getting themselves into when they signed on with Tooth & Nail and joined the church basement touring circuit.
The film suggests that the group signed with a label from the Christian scene because it was part of their social circle at the time, without realizing the implications. It’s hard to imagine young pastors getting excited about the raucous cover of Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” group (“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what are you doing?”) Or the Lee Bozeman’s campy sensuality.
The film tackles this controversial aspect of the band’s early work, and there’s no denying that the subject of Luxury’s debut record shyly, if not openly, flirted with various flavors of sexuality. James Morelos, a former Tooth & Nail publicist interviewed in the film, calls the years 1995 Amazing and thank you âa queer record, even though they’re straight,â and it’s hard to disagree.
While this rock and roll flamboyance may have made luxury an outlier in a music scene that tended to focus more on faith and evangelism, it makes the band’s musical and spiritual growth after the catastrophic accident. of the van all the more intriguing, which is the focus of the film. They keep a theatrical punk rock dangerousness, but it is tempered – whether by age or something else – by a kind of wounded maturity.
By the time we get to the band’s last album, its release in 2019 Trophies, Lee Bozeman sings the lyrics “Change your life”, on more than one song, with the authority of a man who has had to do it more than once. The way he behaves, you almost want to take it on.
The film was made while Luxury was recording Trophies, and the circle is sort of closed; now fully anchored in their liturgical life, the group’s priests seem more comfortable being a version of a Christian rock band.
Freed from the constraints of an evangelical music scene which demanded a particular performative expression of faith, Luxe became at the end of the film what one could call a sacramental rock band.
It is only in the final scenes that the notion of ‘parallel love’ is fully explained by Christopher Foley, the bassist, who describes how his vocation as a priest has helped him understand what the band does:
What does a priest do? A priest is someone whoâ¦ offers something that is then returned to us as something invigorating. We don’t take wheat and grapes; we take bread and wine, the work of human hands. And that’s what’s lifted up to Christ, and that’s what’s coming back to us as Christ Himself, as something that gives life.
The question is not “Are you a Christian group or not?” It’s just “Are you, by the nature of your life calling, a creation priest who offers … whatever is your business, you know, your life thing, do you take it? and the offers? ” And then, if you offer it, do you receive it as something that gives life?
It’s easy to see a thirst for âsomething that gives lifeâ in the group after their encounter with death, and the moral seriousness and luxurious aesthetic (eh?) Of orthodoxy seem to have been a natural fit for them. a group in search of that elusive. something more âChristian rockers often sing vaguely.
A band known for their do-it-yourself philosophy – “wild and untamed,” as one music critic puts it in the documentary – coming to be associated with an ancient (and, in the US, “alien”) faith is similar in some ways to the ultimate punk movement. (The only other contemporary rock musician I know who has converted to orthodoxy, in fact, is Justin Marler, former of doom metal band Sleep and co-founder of Orthodox punk style magazine. Death to the world, who called Orthodoxy “the last real rebellion.”)
This is more or less where the story of Parallel love ends, and even if you don’t plan to convert to Orthodoxy – which several of the musicians interviewed in the film did, not just the priests of Luxe – when paired with the rich and dense music of Trophies, it is quite satisfying. We end up with the idea that any honest art made by a Christian, priest or not, can be an offering.
Luxury’s trajectory from an accidental Christian group to a determined group seems significant. Many of the ’90s indie rock groups of the evangelical scene were pressured into making music for the Christian market when they were young and not particularly mature in the faith or otherwise.
Interestingly, some of Luxury’s peers ended up in very different places: some of the band members they rubbed shoulders with along the way gave up music for financial reasons (believe it or not, it hard to make a living as an artistic Christian rock band!), have embarked on lucrative mainstream music gigs (the producer of Luxury’s debut album now does live sound for Leon Bridges), or in some case, experienced public “disconversions” motivated in part by what they saw as hypocrisy in the Christian rock scene.
This is not to say that converting to Orthodoxy and / or becoming a priest is the only way ex-Chrindie Sceneters can find a spiritual path in the wilderness. While some Gen X evangelicals look to Rome, Canterbury or Constantinople as possible ways out of the political and cultural traps of their own traditions, the fact that the Christian rock scene may have supported a group as unique and good as Luxury says something about ecumenism under the big tent hiding in the basements of “non-denominational” churches across the country.
The cult popularity of luxury, captured in Parallel love, reflects the openness of this scene to a variety of expressions of faith, whether as old as the Divine Liturgy or as modern as post-punk DIY records.
Bozeman sings, on Trophies“You have to change your life” as “it takes a life and a priest” to understand his place in the world. Maybe we also need a group like Luxury.
Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of several books including the next Dancing on architecture is a reasonable thing to do (Cascade).
Hear Joel plead for the best Luxury album in an upcoming Zoom discussion with other music critics on May 27.