King’s X Keeps the Faith – Rolling Stone
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King’s X Keeps the Faith

This band of Christians proves its metal with a hard-rocking album

King's X

King's X

Rowen Lawrence/WireImage

“I read the Bible. I know what he did. Man, the guy was cool!”

Doug Pinnick is talking excitedly in a Dallas restaurant and stabbing a fork emphatically into his steak ‘n’ shrimp combo platter, setting off a noisy chain reaction of clinking and clanging by the multiple zippers on his leather jacket and the half dozen or so thin silver bracelets he wears on each wrist.

“Here he is, sitting with the worst people in the world,” Pinnick continues, ignoring the curious stares coming from adjacent tables, “all the ones that nobody else would touch or come close to. Here he is, talking to them. And he’s not telling them to get their lives together. ‘Don’t feel guilty’ – that’s basically what he said.”

“And that’s all we’re saying – ‘Don’t feel bad about what you’re doing,'” Pinnick declares, peering intently through the shaggy overhang of his jet black mohawk. “The hardest thing about living in this world is feeling good about yourself.”

The “he” Pinnick’s referring to is, of course, the He, Jesus Christ. The “we” is King’s X, the biracial hard-rock trio from Houston whose critically applauded blend of muscular progressive metal, Beatlesque vocal sunshine, AOR melodic savvy and utopian optimism is making chart waves via “It’s Love,” the breakout track from the group’s third LP, Faith Hope Love by King’s X. And Pinnick, the band’s outspoken black bassist and lead singer, is explaining how he, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill weathered 10 years of writing, gigging, recording and, for long periods, starving together – and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible. That is, reconciling their own devout Christian beliefs – and the attendant missionary responsibilities – with the baser thrills of rock & roll, the worldly temptations of pop stardom and the harsh realities of both the secular and Christian music industries. Not to mention the contradictory expectations of their rapidly growing audience, composed largely of equally devout metalheads whose idea of a new messiah is more likely to be Danzig or Slayer.

“This is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Pinnick insists, “what they’re all supposed to be doing,” taking a poke at his more puritanical brethren. “Being themselves in the world. Feeling the friction. We come out and play, we feel one way, maybe the crowd feels another. But we rub against each other, we understand and learn. And we disappear after that. But still, something happens.”

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That something can be simple air-guitar nirvana. Later that night, at the City Limits, a heavy-metal watering hole in suburban Dallas, King’s X roasts a capacity crowd with repeated bazooka blasts of what Pinnick likes to call “the pound,” an appropriate euphemism for the explosive compound of thundering hard-rock classicism, wily hooks, speed-metal zoom and startlingly soulful vocal interplay. Flashes of the band’s disparate influences – early Rush, U2, Sixties Brit pop, progressive soul no-nonsense thrash – whiz by, shoehorned into rib-rattling, sing-along torpedoes. One minute, the band is driving head bangers into fits of spasmodic ecstasy with the staccato James Brown-cum-Metallica time changes of “We Were Born to Be Loved.” The next, Pinnick, Tabor and Gaskill are executing the delicate stair-step harmonies of “I’ll Never Get Tired of You” with the cathedral elegance of the Beatles on Abbey Road.

It’s easy to miss the message amid top-drawer mayhem like “Power of Love,” a buzz-bomb pledge of spiritual allegiance from the band’s 1988 debut, Out of the Silent Planet, or the frenetic hallelujah “Moanjam” (“I sing this song/This one’s for you/You’re the story. . . . You’re the glory”), which roars like Van Halen at Bad Brains speed. There’s more epic spirit than specific doctrine in Pinnick’s gritty, robust singing; imagine Bono speaking in R&B-gospel tongues (particularly that of Sly Stone). And over three albums, King’s X has mentioned its savior only once by name in a song, the pulverizing “Over My Head” from the 1989 LP Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. Even then, it was only in passing – “Music music/I hear music…. Oh Lord/Music over my head.”

But that is because King’s X is not a Christian band, “playing the game of using the right words here and there,” as Ty Tabor brusquely puts it. Rather, the members of King’s X argue, they are simply a band of Christians, less interested in parroting dogma than in celebrating life and blowing minds. And so what if the devil has all the best tunes?

“I like a lot of bands whose lyrics or lifestyle I might question,” Pinnick says without apology. “Like Black Sabbath. The core of a lot of our music is Black Sabbath. Yeah, the guy’s talking about Satan and stuff. But that’s just what he’s singing about. Hopefully, that’s what we get across, that we just play music.”

“The spiritual aspect that people always tie to us includes everything.” Jerry Gaskill contends. “It includes that Saturday-night-party thing.”

Their one-two punch of candid spirituality and exploratory hard-rock verve has paid off handsomely outside the Christian-rock corral. The band’s three albums have sold nearly 300,000 copies combined (half of those by Faith Hope Love alone); Gary Waldman, vice-president of the band’s label, Megaforce Worldwide, estimates that only five to 10 percent of those sales have been within the Christian community. With “It’s Love,” which went Top 10 in AOR airplay, King’s X has been sharing needle time with heavy-metal elders like AC/DC and ZZ Top. Some of the band’s most vocal fans are, in fact, other musicians, such as Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, who often applauds King’s X in his own interviews.

The group’s enthusiasm for heathen noise has also gotten King’s X into trouble with fans on the fundamentalist side of the fence. Not too long ago, Doug Pinnick was buttonholed by a young man handing out religious antirock tracts in front of the Summit Arena, in Houston, where Pinnick was going to catch a thrash-metal spectacular featuring Judas Priest, Megadeth and Testament. The guy, who also happened to be a King’s X fan, was outraged that Pinnick would even think of attending such a satanic ritual.

“I tried to talk him down,” Pinnick says, shaking his head sadly. “He didn’t understand. Because I had shattered his dreams. And I don’t want to do that to anybody.”

“Rock & roll is very important in my life. But the most important thing is to give people things they need, like love and attention. We all need that friendly handshake or hug. That’s what keeps us going, and that’s what I want King’s X to represent. I want people to be able to put one of our records on and feel like ‘Yeah, I can deal with today.'”

Doug Pinnick was in his late teens before he was introduced to the healing properties of heavy music. Born in Joliet, Illinois, “the illegitimate child of an illegitimate granddaughter,” Pinnick was raised by his great-grandmother, a strict Baptist who had “the Pentecostal holiness attitude, where everything was wrong. Except sitting at home and reading your Bible all day and going to prayer meetings.” His great-grandmother didn’t get a television until he was 12. 

In high school, Pinnick fell in love with Motown and, when he got to college, Led Zeppelin. “I finally realized I could be myself,” he says. “I have a deep basic faith. I really do believe. But it’s not something somebody taught me or ingrained into me. I realized that there was a way of life in it that could work for me.”

It took Pinnick, now 40, several years before he found that way of life with King’s X. He lived for a time in a Christian community in Florida, handing out pamphlets on the street and staging religious pop concerts that, most of the time, barely drew flies. Bored and frustrated, Pinnick returned to Joliet and formed an evangelical art-rock band that generated a large local following, out of which he actually founded his own church, the Shiloh Fellowship. “It was like a hippie-community thing,” Pinnick says. “We got a pastor – he was really cool, he was at Woodstock. The church grew, and I felt really good about it. But then it got to the point where, again, I started seeing ‘the box.’ I had to move on, because these people weren’t. So I said a prayer: ‘Lord, open the doors and I am out of here.'”

God answered his prayer – sort of. In 1979, Pinnick got an offer to move to Springfield, Missouri, and join a re-formed version of the popular Christian band Petra. That lineup, which included New Jersey émigré Jerry Gaskill, broke up a month after Pinnick arrived.

The seeds of King’s X were sown a year later, when Pinnick and Gaskill – who had found employment as the rhythm section with Christian-rock guitar hero Phil Keaggy – met Ty Tabor, a guitarist (and serious Keaggy fan) from Pearl, Mississippi. Along with a short-lived second guitarist, Dan McCollom, they formed a group called the Edge and embarked on a long career of playing Midwest bars for peanuts.

“The first several years, we were constantly concerned with being original,” says the 33-year-old Tabor. “But the thing is, we only ended up copying other original people.”

One group, not surprisingly, was U2. Pinnick says the Edge was gigging long before he’d ever heard of U2, but he clearly remembers the day he bought U2’s second album, October, took it home and dropped the needle on the opening track, “Gloria.”

“Here Bono was singing in Latin this beautiful text, ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo,'” Pinnick says. “And I thought, ‘That dog! He got away with it.’ He did it in an artistic way. That was the day U2 changed my mind about a lot of things and encouraged me. Because if they could do it, we could do it.”

Nevertheless, Pinnick confesses, “on the early demos, you could always tell where I stole from.” “King,” which was later recorded for Out of the Silent Planet, “sounded exactly like a Bow Wow Wow song,” he says. “‘Shot of Love’ sounded like a Yes tune. We did it a couple of times that way, and it just fell apart.”

The bond that kept the band from falling apart was its mutual faith – and mutual distrust of organized Christianity, in and out of the music business. “We hit it head-on,” says Gaskill, 32, “the whole Christian world-versus-the-devil thing, saying you couldn’t do this or be that.” Gaskill and Tabor had both dropped out of Evangel College, a Christian university in Springfield. “I left the school very angry at the hypocrisy there,” Tabor says sharply. And Pinnick was just tired of singing for the converted; King’s X, he says rather proudly, has never performed on the Christian concert circuit.

“I get so disgusted when I see these T-shirts with MEGALIFE and it looks like MEGADETH,” Pinnick says. “I’m going, ‘Do something original! If you Christians do something original, maybe people would respect you. But all you do is take everything you see that’s successful, and then you turn it around and want to tell people, “This is real.” This is bullshit.'”

“When we started, I said, ‘I want to form a band with people who believe the same way I do, who just want to play rock & roll – period.’ That’s all I wanted. And as a result, maybe we could make a statement in a meaningful way. Not that the band hinges on the success of people getting turned onto what we say but that we can be free to be who we are, without being afraid or ashamed or ridiculed for it.”

“Because Christianity is ridiculed. I don’t want to say, ‘I believe a certain way’ and then have people go, ‘Oh, man, get outta here, he’s a Christian.’ I’d prefer they just go, ‘Hey, he’s a Christian, they believe that way, and it’s cool, because they stuck to what they believed in.'”

The group’s diligence was eventually rewarded but only after they lost another second guitarist, changed their name (regrettably) to Sneak Preview and released an independent LP which they’d all much rather forget. In 1985 the band moved to Houston – originally at the behest of two local Christian-music entrepreneurs who soon flaked out – and met Sam Taylor, a fellow believer, musician and former ZZ Top management associate who agreed to work with them.

Taylor subsequently became the band’s manager, record producer and video director. Indeed, he’s literally the fourth member of the band. “I don’t have a management agreement or production deal,” Taylor says. “I’m a four-way partner. That’s the way they wanted it.” Taylor also came up with the name King’s X – originally the name of “the cool band in town when I was in high school,” he says. “I guess I was waxing philosophical at the time too, thinking about the relationship between God and Christianity, and that we have a mark on us.”

It was Taylor’s idea, more recently, to underscore that mark by including an unusually explicit reference to the band’s Christianity in the credits of Faith Hope Love: a lengthy excerpt from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in the New Testament, which reads, in part, “Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.”

“I’m glad it’s in there,” Pinnick says. “Because it’s not a statement from the Bible to me. It’s a statement about life. We’ve lost sight of what really is.”

“As corny as this may sound, it’s like the Michael Jackson song: You gotta deal with the man in the mirror,” Tabor explains. “If you do that, that’s your little part of changing the world. Because you’re in the world. We write about people dealing with themselves, not going out to change others.” “You’ve got to feel the love in your heart,” Pinnick says. ”You’ve got to recognize what love is, you’ve got to understand it. How am I going to love God, something I can’t even see, when I don’t even know what love is? This is the quest.”

“Jesus says if you just love your neighbor as yourself, you do well. And I just want to be able to do well.” 

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