Since the dawn of this millennium, the Christian music community has observed more breakout rock bands than ever. And from P.O.D., Switchfoot and Underoath to Relient K, Pillar and Flyleaf, each has had one key thing in common — a strong presence in the mainstream rock world. While groups such as David Crowder Band and BarlowGirl have focused on the church and managed to gain significant exposure while doing so, only one such band has separated itself from the pack — Kutless.
Just moments into an early afternoon interview, Kutless’ Jon Micah Sumrall seems weary.
His voice gravelly and sluggish, the 25-year-old lead singer is in the midst of a tour stop in Toledo, Ohio. As his band nears the end of a successful, yet grueling, road stint, a nasty cough has bedeviled Sumrall all week. His 18-month-old son, Caleb, plays nearby and, based on the considerable hubbub, seems to be enjoying himself. “He’s a maniac,” Sumrall says softly with a barely audible laugh.
Despite all these vicissitudes, Sumrall manages to forge ahead with the conversation in a cordial and cogent fashion — just another ordinary day in the music business.
But standard procedure aside, there’s been nothing commonplace about the explosive rise of Kutless.
In case you didn’t get the memo, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet has emerged as one of Christian music’s hottest acts. So hot, in fact, that the band’s latest project, Hearts of the Innocent (BEC), debuted at No. 45 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart (selling more than 21,000 copies the first week), No. 2 on Neilsen SoundScan’s Top Christian/Gospel Albums Overall chart and No. 1 on the Top Christian Rock/Alternative Albums chart. Even more impressive? In less than four years, Kutless has sold more than 725,000 albums.
Success is nothing new for Kutless. The band’s 2002 self-titled first project scanned almost 200,000 copies, giving the group the honorable distinction of having the Tooth & Nail family’s second fastest-selling debut (behind only Jeremy Camp’s). The band’s subsequent albums, Sea of Faces and worship-driven Strong Tower, posted even stronger numbers. Not bad for an erstwhile college worship group.
The facts and figures behind Kutless are extraordinary. But what’s truly extraordinary — if not uncanny — is the breakout success Kutless has enjoyed without the benefit of general market radio airplay and only modest mainstream exposure. (Its song “All the Words” was featured on a March episode of NBC sitcom “Scrubs”; and Target stores recently began airing the group’s video of new single, “Shut Me Out”, for its exclusive Red Channel.) What’s more, no other rock act in recent years has realized such an exceptional ascent focusing primarily on the Christian audience.
BOILING IT DOWN
So what’s the formula for igniting such fast-burning success? Sumrall and others credit a variety of key factors:
1) A balancing act. Kutless deftly intersperses intense rock numbers with earnest ballads. “We know how to ride the fine line between providing good rock & roll cuts along with softer songs that play well on radio,” Sumrall explains. “I believe that combination has helped us to grow quickly.”
2) A road-warrior mentality. Playing more than 600 shows over the course of four years, Kutless has developed a strong following across the country. “We’ve also been privileged to play large events like Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades, Luis Palau Festivals, Harvest Crusades with Greg Laurie and major Christian music festivals,” Sumrall says.
3) A proclivity for well-penned lyrics. Sumrall is among the genre’s most sincere and pensive scribes, tackling subjects such as brokenness, suicide and self- mutilation. Producer Aaron Sprinkle (Jeremy Camp, Hawk Nelson) also serves as a song co-writer, providing even more depth. “We consider Aaron our sixth band member in a way,” says Sumrall. “He was a big part of the writing process, and his experience was helpful when sculpting the songs.”
4) A strong billing. Previous tours with seasoned groups such as Audio Adrenaline and MercyMe have given Kutless tremendous exposure. More recently, the band headlined packed-out nationwide shows with Stellar Kart, Falling Up and Disciple. “We’ve been fortunate to have all these amazing and talented guys touring with us,” Sumrall says. “It’s worked out nicely for a well-rounded rock & roll show.”
5) A churched-youth demographic. “One of the great things about touring in the Christian circuit is that youth leaders really get behind what we do,” Sumrall shares. “Think about it: If young people have their ride and tickets set up, all they have to do is show up with a few bucks; and they can go have a fun, safe time. You don’t see that happening in the mainstream market.”
6) A lasting portfolio. In an industry replete with derivative selections, bands won’t build a lasting fan base with less-than-exceptional music.
According to touring mate Kevin Young of Disciple, that’s not an issue with Kutless. “These guys are solid musicians with really good songs, and kids at the shows sing every lyric,” Young says. Chuck Finney, program director at 94.9 KLTY-FM in Dallas, Texas — the station which boasts the largest Christian radio listenership in the country — says the band’s music is a comparable alternative to what listeners hear on general market radio. “Kutless has a sound that’s edgy but melodic, and that resonates with a lot of listeners,” he says.
A desire to follow God’s will. Says Young, “The guys in Kutless are totally content to minister to kids within the church because that’s what God has called them to do. At the end of the day, they just want to honor Him.”
Copyright © 2006 CCM Magazine, Used by Permission
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