That’s an odd statement to make about a band that, since forming in 1999, has sold more than 3.5 million albums. But Kutless might just be Portland’s most un-Portland band. Its sound is heavily produced Christian praise and worship filtered through a hard-rock edge. The band’s official bio is laced with evangelical jargon. Its members wear the sort of long, swept hair preferred by megachurch pastors. It exists a world away from the experimental, do-it-yourself and definitively secular aesthetic of the city’s most popular acts.
At least, that’s how it seems. But while the band’s church-heavy lyrics may be rare to the Rose City music scene, its connection to Christianity is not. In actuality, Portland music is rife with musicians who grew up within the church. Bands like Menomena and the Robinsons have well-documented ties to Christianity, even if their music is a far cry from the slick sound of a band like Kutless.
“What Kutless represents is the style of Christianity Portland despises,” says Todd Fadel, a Christian who ran all-ages clubs the Meow Meow and the Push in the ’90s and early 2000s. “I think a lot of Christians, if they would even call themselves that, that are doing music here are what I call ‘live and let live’ Christians. They aren’t out to evangelize. They aren’t out to use their music as some sort of ministry tool.”
But that’s precisely what Kutless is out to do. The band, born in the basement of Warner Pacific College, didn’t begin with the goal of playing massive venues and festivals. The goal was to tell people about Jesus, to build a ministry. Even so, James Mead, the band’s guitarist, claims Portland was integral in developing the Kutless ethos.
“We’ve very much avoided the move to Nashville or getting too entrenched in that scene,” he says. “Being from Portland and staying here, and having the covering of our church and family here at home has always been really important to us because it’s part of our identity. I think people from Portland can understand that.”
He says the city has shaped the band’s sound, as well: “Creatively, I think this environment is sort of a muse. Living in an area I’d describe as a great mission field has been influential for us, too. We don’t rest on our laurels when we’re at home, you know? We know it’s all about being Christ-like and peaceful even to our next-door neighbors, and being people who are representing the Gospel, even if we’re just standing out by our mailbox chatting with other parents on the street.”
Fadel agrees with Mead that, despite conventional thought, Portland is a beautiful place to grow up a believer. Why, then, do so many local musicians opt to conceal their faith? The causes of that secularization are fairly simple. Young church attendees are exposed to choir or worship bands very early on. Often, they begin performing music live in high school. As their tastes evolve, the Christian music scene becomes stifling, and many leave the church in favor of creative potential elsewhere. If Christian musicians feel the need to downplay their faith, it is usually because that faith can be so easily hijacked and misrepresented by a church thirsting for cultural legitimacy. Even the most tenuous of lyrical themes can lead to a band being labeled “Christian,” resulting in moralistic expectations from more traditional churchgoers and innate distrust from those outside the church wary of sermonizing.
Fadel says being a Christian in Portland means being constantly confronted with beliefs and ideas vastly different from the theology espoused throughout the Bible belt. But he wishes Christians outside the city would stop viewing Portland as—to use Mead’s phrase—a “mission field.” To him, it’s the other way around.
“The church has a lot to learn from Portland,” Fadel says, “about community, about family, about accepting those that are castoffs and people no one is making room for. Portland is extravagant about making room for everyone. You know, all the stuff the church should be doing.”