It was difficult to get a word in edgewise when I caught up with Kutless drummer Jeffrey Gilbert. He is so pumped up about the band's music, message and mission that he seldom pauses to catch his breath. He is a journalist's delight because when you pose a question to the affable musician and listen to him it becomes a lot like watching Jeff Gordon speed around a NASCAR track.
Gilbert and Dave Luetkenhoelter (bassist) joined Kutless in 2005 after Kyle Mitchell and Kyle Zeigler left the band to pursue other interests in the recording industry. Gilbert grew up with Kutless founding member and primary songwriter Jon Micah Sumrall in southern Oregon. During the first part of the decade while Kutless was quickly establishing itself as a formidable rock band Gilbert and Luetkenhoelter were playing riffs and keeping beat for Seven Places a band signed by Tooth and Nail Records.
Although Kutless has created many great tunes three songs perhaps best define the band, "Run", "Strong Tower" and "Shut Me Out". "Run" (2002-self titled CD) was the band's breakthrough song and went to number one. It is a song about a God who pursues us out of love and asks us to meet Him anywhere at anytime. "Strong Tower" (album of the same name) is a rock ballad that has become a concert favorite. The lyrics recall God's protective care. Despite being recorded in 2005 "Strong Tower" was perched in the number ten spot on R&R's charts for the third week of May. The 20 Top Countdown had the song ranked thirteenth.
The newest Kutless chart stopper is "Shut Me Out" (From Heart of the Innocent-2006). "Shut Me Out" is a renaissance metal tune. The song boasts thundering guitar riffs by Ryan Shrout and James Mead. Heavy beats, lots of bass and protest lyrics also contribute to the trademarks of heavier metal. Gilbert says, "Some of the best metal out there is Christian metal." The band comes by their love for metal naturally with some of the group's members claiming fan status for older bands such as Guardian and Quicksand as well as newer groups like Demon Hunter.
Gilbert describes the song "Shut Me Out" and in fact the entire "Hearts of the Innocent" album as possessing a common thread. That thread delivers the message that Christians cannot be content to wait for people to wander into their churches before they reach out to them in love. He says more and more youth outside the church view the Christian community as cultish or a subculture that will not approach them first.
Kutless cannot be defined however as a one dimensional rock band and that is a testament to the songwriting skill of Sumrall as well as their eclectic taste in music. Gilbert tells me, "It is funny the different backgrounds that we have and the different music that we like to listen to. I love listening to old Jazz music. Dave (Luetkenhoelter) likes listening to different (styles of) Jazz.
Gilbert notes, "It's interesting the writing process that we have. We love heavy guitar riffs and big drum beats but at the same time we like to bring it down. Honestly it (softer songs) diversifies our music. If you listen to an album that has heavy rock riffs for the whole record from track one to twelve it can get mundane. There isn't a whole lot of color to the record." He provides some insight, "When you are making a record you want to make sure that it is interesting all the way." He says instead of creating CDs that people track surf Kutless would, "much rather have a person hit play and let it ride. There is a time and place for rock and roll, there is a time and place for a power ballad and a time and place for an acoustic track. We want to make sure our records have a cool flow."
Gilbert continues, "I think some of the softer songs that Kutless has are some of our best songs. It really shows at our concerts too. Kids like to go to the mosh when we play "Let You In" "Tonight" or "Hearts of the Innocent". They (also) like to worship to "Run", "Strong Tower" and "Sea of Faces"."
The success of Kutless can be directly attributed to their attitude about music and how it is intertwined with their faith. Gilbert says, "We want kids to walk into a Wal-Mart or a Best Buy, pick up our record and say, 'This record is awesome!' We want those kids that don't know the Lord to pick up our record and say, 'This is a hot track.' We don't want to be limited to the Christian community in the sense that we are only going to play to Christians." To accomplish that end Gilbert and the rest of the Kutless band members believe their music has to be as good as or better than anyone else's. Gilbert believes that often the Christian music industry in their attempts to broaden the fan base have done a disservice to artists who happen to be Christians. He says by continually drawing comparisons to general market audiences with the inference that if you like a certain band you will probably enjoy this artist's music suggests that the Christian group of artists is somehow inferior.
Gilbert says there are kids out there who pose the question, "Why is Christian music always second best to secular music?" He goes on to say, "We don't want to be second best and there is no reason to be second best. I don't think as craftsmen for the Lord that we should be second best in any way."
The goal of Kutless is to hook kids on quality music and have them dig deeper into the words and message of the song delivered. Gilbert sums it up this way, "We feel our ministry is to be in the church, to be uplifted by the church and to invite those that don't know the Lord just to be in love with the Lord because he first loved us."
With their no holds barred approach to music Kutless' audiences and venues are diversified. They play stadiums, concert halls, clubs and churches. The combination of venues and music results in concert goers who would not normally turn out to listen to a band playing music accompanied by Christian lyrics. Gilbert observes, "It is so cool to see these kids in the front row with Slipknot shirts or Marilyn Manson shirts. At the beginning of the show they are scowling and have their arms crossed. (They are probably) thinking, 'Why am I here at a Christian concert?' By the end of the night they are jumping and moshing harder than anybody else."
The drummer paraphrases one fan mail Kutless received, "All rock and roll used to be to me was a way to get angst out or to mess with my anger. Now I have this true feeling of love knowing I don't have to be angry."
Gilbert also tells me about the email the band received from a girl who had attended one of their concerts with a friend. The girl got as far as putting a gun in her mouth. "She started thinking about the words to the music she heard at the concert. She broke down in tears and went straight to her friend. The friend led her to the Lord. Now she is living for the Lord."
Gilbert miraculously pauses. Before I can pose another question he continues, "This is what keeps us rolling on the road. This is what keeps us doing what we are doing. It's not about selling out shows or having a number one record. It's hearing about kids who drop everything to truly live for the Lord. We are so excited seeing what the Lord is doing. We are getting just as many non Christian kids as Christians coming to our shows. Our prayer every night is that the Lord would be invited into the place and that He would truly move within it. It's insane seeing what the Lord is doing right now. I would never have expected him to be moving in such intense ways. It is what keeps the energy alive and keeps us going. We are going into the third month of our tour and it is getting tiring but knowing that kids are being touched is what keeps us on the road," he says.
For more information on Kutless please visit www.kutless.com.
Writer: Joe Montague