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Interview: Chris White (writer/director) and Daniel Smith (songwriter) of Electric Jesus

Electric Jesus
1 March 2021

For a few short years in the ’80s, the metal scene dominated everything from MTV to the multitude of magazines (Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Edge, RIP) that sat alongside The Big Takeover on bookstore shelves. And within every music scene, there are some targeted niches. Writer/director Chris White focuses on the Christian hair metal scene in the film Electric Jesus which tells the story of the fictional band, 316, that aspires to be as big as Stryper. Billed as an “80s Hair Metal Music-Comedy,” Electric Jesus comes across as a mix of Almost Famous and The Dirt with Jesus and the Bible substituting for sex and drugs in this coming-of-age tale.

White enlisted the help of Daniel Smith, best known for both leading the Danielson Famile as well as a solo career, to craft not only the songs 316 performs in the movie but also the songs that all the other bands that make an appearance perform. Though Smith is best known for writing eclectic indie-pop songs, his inner metalhead shines through and pays homage to bands like Judas Priest, Ratt, Def Leppard and Twisted Sister.

While Electric Jesus has, thus far, been limited to the film festival circuit, White says there are plans to release the movie to the masses sooner than later. “It will be like every movie you’ve seen over the past strange year. There will be some sort of on-demand window for it, there will be some sort of streaming window on the familiar streaming sites that we all know and love/loathe,” White shares. “Maybe if we get lucky and the timing works out right, you might get to see it on a big screen.”

In the meantime, Joyful Noise has released the soundtrack as a double-album with a gatefold cover and White and Smith think the music is good enough to stand on it’s own, even if people never see the movie. Though, having had the chance to view Electric Jesus, the flow of the music on the soundtrack makes a lot more sense in context.

White, from a hotel room in his home state of South Carolina, and Smith, from his house in New Jersey, joined a Zoom call to talk about the film and the soundtrack.

In terms of film making, it sounds like Electric Jesus happened pretty fast. You wrote it in 2016, filmed in 2019 and now it’s starting to make the festival circuit rounds.

CHRIS: When you’re waiting to make your movie, it does not feel fast at all. It feels miserable, but having it done now and realizing what it took artistically to develop the movie, but also on a business level – my wife and I are independent producers, and that’s like a pop-up store every time you make a movie – you come into it with a business plan and you have to raise money, and you have to figure out things like tax incentives, cash flow, just like you’re starting a brand new business. So, I think that’s what took so long, I think the idea of the movie was in my head pretty clearly, but what did take a long time was, not so much getting people to understand this could be a cool thing, but more like us being ready to take your money and go make a movie. That took a while.

We haven’t been doing this that long, this isn’t my first movie, but it’s my first “real movie,” my major label debut.

My process is such that I need to make the movie to figure out some things about it. If I was a musician, I wouldn’t come into the studio with all the songs written, I’d come in with some ideas and maybe some lyrics and then I would have to take my time through it. They do say this about filmmaking, there’s the screenplay and then you get set and shoot it and then the actors bring what they bring to it. Then it gets rewritten again, essentially, in the performances, and then the last rewrite is in the edit. I think the movie did change a lot in the edit.

I figured out making it that the guy telling us the story is realizing that his story isn’t about he and his buddies, it was about this girl. The inversion of the muse – rock and roll movies always have a muse, there’s a girl, she exists entirely to fulfill the artist ambitions of boys, the manic pixie dream girl or, I like to call her the “twirling girl”, and it happened making the movie that I realized that Eric (Andrew Eakle) doesn’t realize the story he’s telling. So that came into the edit, that’s me realizing that “I’m going to tell a story about when I was in a youth group and reflect on that.” Oh yeah. None of our stories are really about us. We like to think they are, but, I think it’s a more generous read of our personal history to acknowledge that our stories are about a lot of other people.

You delivered on that. I went into it thinking the movie was about an ’80s hair metal band and I walked out of it thinking the ’80s hair metal band was just the side story.

CHRIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw the actress who played Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson) the other day and I said, “You know, this is Sarah’s origin story.” And now we can go make that movie because we know how she got her start. It’s just a tiny chapter.

That was figured out going home from shooting the movie and it was like, “Holy crap, this is the story I’ve been trying to tell.” So I would be – if Daniel Smith was my music producer and I was an artist – he would love me because I would have to book him for a year to figure out my record.

DANIEL: And I would add, the ’80s Christian hair metal, that’s just what kind of draws you in.

CHRIS: That’s the McGuffin. We call that a McGuffin in the film world. The thing that you think the movie is supposed to be about, it’s really not. I think that’s a Hitchcock term. The McGuffin is Christian kids making hair metal.

How did you hook up with Daniel? When you started writing it, was the idea that the two of you were going to work together or did you have the story in mind and then try to figure out who you could come in to help with the music?

CHRIS: I met Daniel right after I had written the movie and just liked him tremendously. I love creative people in any field, somebody who’s just genius-level and creative and is fascinating and will actually talk to me. Because of what I knew about his music, I wouldn’t have said, “Hey, let’s make a hair metal movie.”

But as we talked and became friends and talked about music and the kind of similar Christian cultures we grew up in, it became clear that this would be really fun. And the other thing is, the songs can’t suck. These songs cannot be annoying for you to hear, part of the movie’s trick needs to be, “Oh, I think I like that song. I actually want to hear that again.” Daniel’s music, even as eclectic maybe as even the most eclectic Danielson stuff, it’s still built on melody, musicianship, songcraft, I mean, that’s why he is who he is. I’m talking about him like he’s not here.

DANIEL: I can hear you (laughs)

CHRIS: It’s true, that’s why the songs last. Watch the documentary about the Danielson’s, watch the show at art school, the stuff holds up despite the surface eclectia, or whatever. It’s great songwriting. If I could talk him into it, I was like, “He’s got to do this.”

I saw the Danielson Famile a few times and it was an experience every time and I always tried to drag friends out. When people first come in, they were like “What did you bring me to?” and by the end, they were like, “When are they coming back?”

CHRIS: Isn’t that what we’re drawn to? Music, especially when you’re young, has so much to do with your personal identity. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and he was saying, “In high school, I had to hide the fact that I liked R.E.M. and I had to lead with Van Halen. But, secretly, I think R.E.M. is good.” I would be just the opposite, I’m leading with R.E.M. in high school with all my drama friends, but kind of secretly listening to a Def Leppard song.

Discovering Danielson in the ’90s would have been a revelation. It’s like finding a cool art band that was cool and different and you could own, that could be part of you, which I love.

Did the movie have to be set in the ’80s? Could you have used Daniel for a source for a ’90s indie rock band that was going through this same thing, just ten years later?

CHRIS: Part of it is I’m writing to a genre, the rock band movie. I was trying to do something we hadn’t seen before. We’ve seen metal, but we’ve never seen Christian metal. And, I think Christian punk or even Christian alternative, to me, that wouldn’t look so weird, visually, it wouldn’t look strange. I think the swagger of the hair metal, and the sound of it and the attitude mixed with some sort of evangelical Christianity with Jesus, is just funny. Even if you like it and even if you think it’s powerful, you can admit it’s funny to see the guys with that look proclaiming “Commandos for Christ.” It’s funny. That was the visual hook.

How was that first conversation? Did you say, “Daniel, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I need you to channel your inner Motley Crue”?

DANIEL: We met through an interview that we did in person, and at the end I remember Chris saying, “By the way, I have this script that I wrote and I’d be interested in talking to you about doing the music.”

CHRIS: Daniel’s not hard to talk into doing something strange and different.

DANIEL: I thrive off of that, is that a surprise?

CHRIS: I want Daniel to come down to my house in South Carolina and help me build a fence for my house just because it would be fun to hang out. But, I have a weird idea for my fence, that’s why I’m going to ask Daniel to do that. I’m not asking you now, Daniel, but at some point. It’s just going to be a great idea and you’re going to be like, “Oh yeah, that? Yeah, let’s do that.”

I was more like, I need to have my ducks in a row and can actually make this happen before I get this artist committed to it. Even before the movie was funded, we got some money to develop music and that really helped. I’m a songwriter in so far as I came up with goofy lyrics for a lot of the original songs. But, being in the room with Daniel or exchanging bits and pieces of songs through our phones, that generative excitement really did inspire my making with my actors or working on a scene with Brian Baumgartner and trying to make it funny. All that’s in the back of your head, that energy from that collaboration. I see the movie as a film that music, and it’s Daniel’s music, is the driving force of the movie, creatively, even in existential ways.

DANIEL: We were talking earlier how long this movie took, or how short it took, we needed all that time because this is all original material. It takes time. We needed at least all the songs that we’re shooting to the music, they need to be written first in some type of recording so that the actors can act to it. That all had to happen before, and thankfully we we had the time to that because, with writing, it takes what it takes.

CHRIS: And Daniel was able to be on the set when we were shooting the scenes where the band’s playing. Daniel came down and did band rehearsals with the actors. Sarah, the girl, and the singer of 316 (Wyatt Lenhart), they are actually singing. They sang in the studio, they sang live on the day. Daniel’s recording live on the day, much like The Commitments, which is my favorite rock and roll movie.

Daniel’s also teaching actors – great actors, and very enthusiastic actors – this is how you hold a bass guitar and literally teaching them where to put their fingers and how to stand and how the instrument works. I guess our actor, (Caleb Hoffmann) who was the drummer, he can play. And, of course, Wyatt, the lead singer, he’s a multi-instrumentalist, he can play anything and can probably play every instrument in the band.

Daniel was the MVP, he’s working with the guys back at the cast house at night, making sure that Will (Oliver) knows where to put his hands on the guitar for the solo tomorrow. I think that’s one thing that really sells the movie. I think it was Steve Taylor who told me that he really bought these guys were in a band. And that’s high praise. That’s from somebody who’s signed bands, managed bands, been in bands and he watched the movie and thought these guys are really a band. That’s a victory, that’s a big win for our project.

As I was watching the movie, I bought that the actors were really playing their instruments.

CHRIS: It’s cool stuff, like, you can say, there’s some songs where we didn’t have a whammy bar on the guitar and the sound coming out of the guitar would be accomplished with a whammy bar. But, it’s like, let’s bend the guitar neck or just don’t look at the guitar in that section. I’m fine with nerds watching the movie and going, “That isn’t realistic, we would have done it a different way.” That just means they’re watching my movie.

Daniel, were you the R.E.M. fan that secretly had a Def Leppard cassingle?

DANIEL: The time that I was into metal would have been ’85, sixth grade probably. That would have been Def Leppard’s Pyromania but also Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, all that stuff. I was really into that but because I was also growing up in a Christian home, I was getting pressure to listen to Christian music at the same time, I really connected with U2.

CHRIS: That’s the gateway drug.

DANIEL: Once I grew up, like a year later, I was done with metal and U2 and then listening to college radio and learning about Husker Du and Minutemen and punk rock and then psychedelic music like early Pink Floyd. So then, it’s just art rock all the way.

Because you’re writing for a specific genre, how much studying were you doing? Were you just trying to replicate something you remembered from your childhood or were you sitting down with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden records and really trying to sound like those bands?

DANIEL: It was a process. It was definitely a good month or two of only listening to – and I wasn’t that deep into metal – so it didn’t take me long to relisten to things that I listened to in sixth grade but then just keep going and especially Christian metal I had not listened to at all. It was just a couple of months of just fully immersed in Christian metal.

Even with Danielson, the songwriting is the heart of all that music and so this is not very different except it had a specific goal which I usually don’t have. But, this wasn’t too different in that I was studying what I liked about those songs because Chris and I decided right from the beginning, let’s make these songs as great as they can be. Wouldn’t that be a funny prank on the audience if, next thing they know, they like these songs and they can’t get them out of their heads. And it’s a much more interesting thing to do.

What I was doing was trying to find what chord structures and melodies … I mean, you’ve got to do the guitar sound. I was really, really fortunate, my childhood friend from kindergarten, John Montgomery, he did all those metal guitar parts and he’s unbelievable. I could have never done it and made it sound believable without him.

In terms of the core of the songs and the melodies and all that, it was just trying to find things that I liked in that genre and there wasn’t that much that I liked. So, I kind of went back to Def Leppard and Pyromania. And John and I, in sixth grade, we were listening to that together so he was kind of teaching me that the great thing about Def Leppard was that they had two guitars and they would play chords together to create chords that one guitar can’t make. We adopted some of those fun philosophies that only nerds would know.

CHRIS: From a character standpoint, talking about the characters in the movie who are essentially the composers of these songs, Daniel and I talked about a kid who is really into music and has a band, he’s not just listening to, if at all, Petra. Even if he’s sneaking, he’s listening to AC/DC. He is listening to the cherished and popular music of the moment because he’s into music. We just thought that these kids, sure, they love Stryper – and, I kind of like that, I kind of enjoyed the Stryper stuff that we dealt with; I still like Stryper, they’re legit, they’re still making good music – but we looked at it as these kids are ambitious so it’s okay if we hear a little Judas Priest in that song because there were listening to that, they weren’t just listening in a Christian bubble.

In the movie, when Eric rattles off the names of all the Christian metal bands, are those bands that you knew or did you have to look them up?

CHRIS: There’s this wonderful moment in the beginning of the movie, it’s the last note that Michael sings in the opening credits sequence at church camp and he holds the note for almost half a minute. And the actor really sang that in the studio, and it was just funny and we were laughing and then we decided to keep it. I wanted a moment like that for our lead character. What’s a prolonged, obnoxiously long reveling in this moment, and it just occurred to me that Eric should say every Christian band that he’s got tapes in his car of. And all those are real Christian bands. Some of them are deceased or impossible to find, but, for the most part, those were bands that Christian kids would have heard.

I went to our music supervisor, who has an incredible knowledge and background … he’s written books on Christian music, so I just said, “It’s the summer of 1986, what are the tapes in this guy’s car? Give them to me.” And I asked for 66, one for every book of the Bible. He came back and we threw the list in front of the actor and in two days he had memorized the list and rattled it off. I love that scene. Even if you’re not a Christian music fan, you know that you – or a friend that you have – could say so much trivia about bands or shows that bands played or the lineups of different bands. It’s almost like sports trivia guys, how they know just strange little pieces of knowledge from the sports world. Music fans, like us, know stuff like that.

DANIEL: It shows how, in Christian ’80s culture, kids didn’t only listen to one style of music. Whereas in mainstream culture, you identified with a style of music and you didn’t deviate from that. In Christian culture, there was slim pickings so you just kind of listened to anything you were allowed to listen to.

CHRIS: It also goes to why you were listening to music, you were listening to music as an act of godliness or to be devout. If I’m devout, I can say Amy Grant sucks, but, at the end of the day I don’t really want to damn Amy Grant because she’s Christian. I hated Petra when I was a kid, I thought they were terrible, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to their music even with Christian friends. But I would never say, “We’ve got to put an end to all these Petra tapes on the church bus. We can have no Petra, they’re terrible.” I wouldn’t say that.

Did you talk to the guys in Stryper?

CHRIS: Daniel and I and a couple producers went up to Plymouth, Massachusetts a few months ago and showed the movie to Michael Sweet himself. Because of Covid, the rest of the band is scattered. But, every guy in the band got a streaming link and everybody watched the movie and they loved the movie. It was incredibly strange to be in the room with Stryper. We’re in a movie theater, we rented a movie theater, to show the movie. And I remember before I’m screening it, I’m like, “You have to understand that the Stryper in the movie is mythic Stryper, it’s not really you.” I’m just praying they’re not offended. They weren’t offended. They loved it. They were like, “Yeah, we’re the heroes of the whole movie.”

DANIEL: I was sitting a few rows back just hoping they laughed at the right parts.

CHRIS: And then Michael comes out afterwards and he said, in the scene at Purgatorio at the end, where the band is just being booed, “Man, we played shows like that. We still play shows like that.” And I’m like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Yeah, and we feed off that. We like it when they hate us, we just play harder.”

The days of midnight sales are gone. Now, if you stay up until midnight, you can dial up all new releases on your phone on Spotify. Some of the release date magic is gone.

DANIEL: As an old person, it’s disappointing when you can’t go to the record shop when it opens and run out to your car and sit in your car and listen to the album. I remember albums that I’ve listened to in my car, sitting in park. There’s an excitement there that’s not there any more.

CHRIS: I look at it this way. I come from it as a music fan, but also as a film producer. I want to build some fans for the record. I want some Danielson fans to have some fun. I want some Christian music fans back from the day to find it and have some fun with it. Music releases, the way they happen now, there have been records that I didn’t hear about coming out until, sometimes, a year later. So, because of the streaming thing, the release window becomes a little bit longer.

We’re trying to use the record to build some interest in the movie but I kind of want to let people know it’s a wistful ’80s rock and roll comedy but we’re really serious about the music. In fact, if people just like the music and don’t ever want to see the movie, or love the music and hate the movie, that’s great. That’s part of this world, part of this collaboration and artistic experience that we’re putting out there.

A lot of people probably will encounter these songs digitally but Daniel and I have listened to the test pressing of the record and it’s next level with the songs. It’s really amazing to hear these songs on vinyl. I put a lyric sheet in the album because I remember being a kid, pulling out the lyric sheet, sitting down at the record player, putting it on and then just reading the songs and memorizing the musicians, looking at the pictures and flipping it over and touching it. I do want people to have that experience with it.

As a standalone record, it’s great. But listening to it after watching the movie allowed me to replay moments back in my head and put visuals to the songs.

CHRIS: We did something on this record that I think movies need to do on soundtrack records; you can buy a soundtrack and then have the incidental music, the score. We wanted to do that. The score for the movie is incredible. But, I don’t like when you get a soundtrack and it’s like, “Here’s a 45-second song” and then a minute thirteen and then 22 seconds. What they did was they literally got the mix from the movie and threw in on the record.

Daniel formed instrumental songs but formed songs around the score. So that just makes re-encountering the score, that gives it legs, that makes it fun to listen to years from now. Those pieces of music are based on the melodies that he crafted in other songs. The record to me is so strange to just track through it. It’s a journey through this world with everything from the worst Christian worship song ever made, “We Just,” to maybe the most evil black metal song ever written, “All Hail Hell.” And then some bluegrass in between. The score songs are like Paul McCartney and Wings, kind of poppy, real warm sounding ’70s pop music. There’s a lot of stuff in there, it’s a really entertaining listen.

I love the soundtrack because there is variety. And, having seen the movie, the diversity of the songs on the soundtrack makes a lot of sense.

DANIEL: The whole movie’s not about metal. It’s natural that that happens, especially with the extra songs that we wrote. They don’t appear in the movie but they are from the world of Electric Jesus.

I love that thought, that there’s a lot of other stuff in the Electric Jesus universe but we’re just seeing a little bit of it.

CHRIS: There’s one song, “Beat You Off,” there’s that scene in the movie where they pull up to the club and there’s a listing of the band names and there’s a band name Soul Exhumation and we had songs for the other two bands, and 316, but we’re like, “Let’s make a Soul Exhumation song.” So then it’s a blank slate, so we went in the direction of Suzi Quatro/Joan Jett, kind of like a girl band shows up at a metal club and they probably got pissed off and fired their booking agent. But, what would they play? So it became a song about a murdering girl drummer, a homicidal girl drummer. It’s deliberately dirty, the lyrics are supposed to sound dirty and then inside of it, it’s just a murder song. AC/DC wrote murder songs. I love that song. It’s just this weird, noisy punk song.

DANIEL: That was just an extension of the process. Chris would come up with these characters, like, “Who is 316?” and then let’s write songs that we imagine these kids are doing or the way they’re thinking. We’d have these great conversations. And then, same with Bloody Mass. “Who’s Bloody Mass?” They are this Norwegian death metal band. “Who’s Satan’s Clutch?” And we did the song “All Hail Hell” and then we added “All Hail Gargamel” from the Smurfs. As evil as it sounds, all they’re doing is worshipping Gargamel.

CHRIS: “We Just,” the terrible worship song by the band Joy Explosion, the whole lyric is just “We Just” which comes from the way some Christians pray. They say these prayers where they’re like, “Lord, we just come to you tonight,” “Lord, we just lift up Brother Daniel,” “Lord, we just …” That weird little diminisher that I always heard growing up in prayers, “We Just,” what if that’s all they say, just a really boring 3-minute song. That’s that world. It’s basically me and Daniel just trying to make each other laugh and maybe having too much wine when trying to make each other laugh.