Until fairly recently, the term ‘industry' didn't apply to Christian music. It's been around a long time, almost as long as rock and roll as we know it has been, but the beginnings bear no resemblance to today's high-glam, youth-group-catering cash cow; ‘Christian music' existed mostly in isolated pockets around north America. One such pocket was southern California, birthing bands like Undercover, the Altar Boys, and a slew of acts featuring a fierce young black-eyed kid named Michael Knott. "I started playing live when I was fifteen," Mike says. "It was a band called Sterling Steel. Then came Mike Knott's Rubber Band." Humbly hilarious roots indeed for a man who, now thirty-five, can lay claim to being one of the Founding Fathers of a genre that's long since been subdivided into a landslide of music, every conceivable type.
If you haven't heard of Knott, forgive yourself: you're not alone. Most youth group kids across Canada and the U.S. have roots in the Christian scene going back maybe ten or fifteen years, and Knott has never been one for a high profile, despite performing in numerous different bands including the Aunt Bettys, who flirted with the mainstream when they were signed briefly with Elektra Records(home also to another little old California band called Metallica). Other Knott bands include L.S.U.(long ago broken up) and Strung Gurus(ditto), as well as an ill-conceived and short-lived glam project, but it could be said that he hasn't received due credit for his role in establishing what's now a multimillion-dollar business. "I just think that it wasn't the Lord's will for me. That's the only way I can look at it," he says. "I do all right when I'm on tour; I'm able to pay for the bills that my daughter and her mom have and all that cool stuff. I don't complain about it. I think there's different people that do different things. Some plant, some sow or reap, you know, whatever. That's the way it works. At least I still have the drive." Like one of his heroes who recently passed away, Mike Knott simply perseveres. "I love Johnny Cash, yeah," Knott confirms. "Anything he did is good by me. I'm with him. Him and Billy Graham are two people I'd love to meet in my life."
Knott is a recovered alcoholic; his struggles with the bottle and addiction are well-documented in the Christian press in particular, and when asked whether in his striving for success he'll get to a point where he'd be more scared of falling down than enjoying it, he's concise and forthcoming. "Most everything plagues me still, but I think I've been through that. I'm just enjoying it now, and I appreciate that the Lord's still using me, and that I'm still alive. I could've been twenty times already." He became a born-again Christian when he was twelve years old, and he's evidently not the type to delve deeply into theology and ‘why, why, why'; it's quite inspiring to meet a man who simply credits his Saviour for the overcoming of a sickness - and everything else. "It's just...accepting the salvation, and the forgiveness of Christ in your life," he replies to my question about being born again. "For people who don't know what that means, it means that you're born from...your mother," he laughs, "and then you're born again, by the Spirit of God. It doesn't mean that you're suddenly gonna be cured of everything you're struggling with, it just means you're not relying on yourself. You're relying on the grace of God to get to heaven."
Born in Chicago, Knott and his family moved to Orange County, California when Little Mike was in second grade, and here's a dirty little secret: I've never known what precisely what or where Orange County is despite the huge list of bands and artists that call the area home, being as how I've never travelled west of - go figure - Chicago, where I spent two hours during an airport layover. "It's a bunch of cities combined," Knott explains. "Coming [north] up the coast, it goes San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles. We're about an hour from L.A., two from San Diego." Well-said, O Black-Clad One(another obvious Cash influence). Being from that area, you'd think there would be a plethora of other things a native would be involved in, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Knott's activities outside rock and roll comprise a short list. How would he exorcise his emotions if not for strapping on a guitar? "I paint, so that's another outlet. I surf, I snowboard, but it doesn't matter to me [where I live]," he says. "Well, my daughter is in Orange County, so that's why I haven't left. It's so expensive to live there, though, it's incredible."
Whoa, wait. Hold up. Paint? Knott painted the cover art for a 2001 odds-and-ends album called Things I've Done...Things To Come, but there's more? "I'm an art dealer," he says. Well then! "I sell a lot of peoples' art in Laguna Beach; it's a big art community out there. I'll have to see what happens in the next couple of years, but what I think I really wanna do is become a successful painter, and just sit in a flat in L.A. and paint all day long. Art's good money over the internet. I love the music, it's just I wanna commit to painting ten to twenty paintings a month and put ‘em on the internet, because they sell right away." Twenty a month? Isn't that a little overkill? "Van Gogh did a hundred a month." Well, he was messed up. "Yeah, I'm trying to get messed up too," Knott laughs. "You don't wanna say it took twenty minutes or twenty days; it's just art. I mean, Picasso could do three paintings before he ate breakfast, right? It doesn't mean you shouldn't have respect for it. That's just what they did. I could paint realism, but that would take me a long time. If I'm gonna do a painting of you, that looked exactly like you, that would take me a couple of weeks."
Knott is an engaging, affable fellow; quick to laugh or make someone laugh, he's hilarious onstage. When an ambulance stormed by the small church he played prior to this piece, he stopped mid-song when it became glaringly obvious no one could hear him, waited til the siren faded, then said nonchalantly, "You have no idea how much that cost me" before picking up where he left off. Such an easygoing stage presence is the product of twenty years of hard slugging, a lot of it solitary, and it would be impossible not to ask the man his opinion of the industry he helped create. Christian bookstores still sell the overwhelming majority of Christian music on this continent, and those stores often fill up lots of floor space with useless knicknacks, and a lot of that music being produced is, knowingly, subpar. What does a man who's been around a long, long time have to say? "Here's my view," he says decisively. "I don't people should judge it anymore. I think they should just shut up and stop doing that." Stop making knicknacks? "Stop judging Christian music. It's a band playing music, you know, and if they have a ministry, they have a ministry. If they're doing it to make money, then that's their problem."
That last point is rather telling; Knott has not made millions writing rock songs; he's not even what we'd call ‘well-off', which is a far cry from some of today's Mercedes-driving Christian Contemporary stars. But what about bands that aren't good, and have a ministry that people still support? What's the deal here? "Maybe there's a reason they're being supported," Knott muses. "I play music, you know, and I'm a Christian. It may sound like a Christian song, or a worship song, a rock song or a secular song. That doesn't matter to me. I'll play anywhere someone will have me."
To my knowledge(don't quote me here), Knott has never made the cover of a secular music magazine, and says he's never marketed himself to the Christian side of the music industry. But he has been written up often over the years, and indeed has mugged for covers of Christian publications, and it's interesting that in an age where everyone from Jars of Clay to P.O.D. are incessantly tagged as ‘Christian rockers' and peppered with faith questions from Christian and mainstream papers alike, Mike Knott has never faced the issue head-on. "No secular magazine has ever called me a ‘Christian' artist, no," he says. "They never ask me that, ever. I think the reason for that is that they understand that I'm a Christian, but they don't wanna bum out their secular audience; they wanna turn on their audience to my music. If they were to coin me as a Christian artist, they know their readers will quit reading.
"The Christian press is pretty smart; it's such a small pond, and those magazine don't make a ton of money - they're barely surviving. But here's the reason for all those magazines and everything: it's the teenager, going through so much angst, indecision, loneliness, temptation. That's where we all were, and to have something they can give and say, "That's Christian", even if the guys in those bands don't live that way, at least the lyrics can help the kids get through high school, and I'm all for that."
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